Where You Can Find (And Drink) The Original Mai Tai Cocktail

While alcoholic drinks constantly build on new riffs and reinterpretations, many classics can be traced to a single source. And when it comes to rum-infused tiki cocktails, most recipe origins are split between two renowned barmen: Donn Beach and Victor Bergeron. From the late 1930s onwards, the two men pushed the edge of tropical-infused mixology and developed classics like the Zombie, Dark 'n' Stormy, Hurricane, and countless other recipes.

Yet, the two icons didn't always agree on a drink's accreditation. Such was the case with the Mai Tai. Today, the origins of the citrusy, sweet, and boozy beverage are intertwined with Bergeron's Trader Vic's enterprise. The supremely successful bar and restaurant chain promoted and popularized the beverage from its birthplace in Oakland, California, to Hawaii and beyond. However, tiki-rival Beach claimed that the cocktail was invented at his establishment, Hollywood's popular Don the Beachcomber, a decade prior. 

He maintained that Trader Vic's recipe was a near-copy, with only minor alterations. Regardless of the sling's precise emergence, it was at Trader Vic's that the Mai Tai's name was coined and the drink gained popularity. And while the last Don the Beachcomber closed its doors in 2018, Bergeron's bar empire — including a location in its native California — has remained open throughout the decades. So, head to one of the many Trader Vic's locations to sip on a little bit of history with a shaken expression of the original Mai Tai recipe.

Trader Vic's still serves its traditional Mai Tai

Classic cocktails like the Mai Tai change over time, with new ingredients and flavors becoming more popular. But an order at Trader Vic's differs from more modern renditions and stays true to the original recipe. A traditional Trader Vic's Mai Tai contains a mixture of the bar's signature rum blend, lime juice, sugar syrup, almond orgeat, and orange curaçao liqueur. Originally, the cocktail's primary ingredient was a 17-year-old Jamaican J. Wray and Nephew rum.

However, in large part due to the cocktail's popularity, Victor Bergeron's preferred mature rum became scarce in the 1950s and eventually went extinct, so he created a similar tasting but more sustainable Mai Tai recipe containing a blend of Jamaican and aged molasses rum. And, at around 17 Trader Vic's locations worldwide, it's still possible to sample a dose of such bartending ingenuity. Later versions of the cocktail, like this citrusy Mai Tai, commonly became softened with sweet juices, such as orange and pineapple. 

These less rum-forward renditions also emerged at the hands of Bergeron, created to appeal to tourists at Hawaiian hotels. Decades later, the Mai Tai continues to evolve, with many bartenders opting for varying types of rum and ingredients. Yet a recent tiki renaissance has once again cast a spotlight on the drink's earliest form. And rightfully so — Bergeron's original proportions might just be the most wondrous of them all.