Like Margaritas, Mai Tais fall victim to their own popularity. An endless parade of saccharine prepackaged mixes and weirdly fruited iterations outpace the original.
Properly made Mai Tais are beautifully balanced, though. Want to master this tiki drink at home? Here are six expert tips.
What to do when making Mai Tais
1. Stick to the recipe.
Because tiki is stylistically exuberant, it can be tempting to throw anything vaguely tropical-seeming into your Mai Tai. Besides, those bottles of blue Curacao and grenadine are gathering dust in your home bar, and certainly aren’t going to drink themselves.
Unfortunately, free-styling with tiki-adjacent ingredients often yields cloying results. We suggest sticking to the recipe: two ounces of aged rum, plus half-ounce (each) rhum agricole, lime juice, orgeat, and orange Curacao.
2. Use real orgeat.
“Without almond syrup you cannot make a true Mai Tai,” Tim Wiggins, co-owner and bar manager, Retreat Gastropub and Yellowbelly, St. Louis, Mo., says. Mustipher agrees, calling orgeat “pivotal to a true Mai Tai” in her book.
Orgeat is essentially almond simple syrup spiked with rose or orange blossom water. Giffard, L’Orgeat, and Beachbum Berry make widely available orgeat liqueurs.
It’s easy to make orgeat at home, too. Combine equal parts almond milk and sugar in a pot on the stovetop, bring it to a boil, and stir in a dash of rose or orange blossom water and almond extract once it’s cool.
3. Your only juice is fresh lime.
While recipes with orange, pineapple, and other fruit juices abound, a classic Mai Tai exclusively uses lime juice.
“Contrary to what you might think, the Mai Tai is actually just a rum sour… No coconut, no passion fruit, pineapple, mango or orange juice,” Toby Cecchini, owner of New York City’s Long Island Bar, wrote in a 2010 piece for The New York Times’s T Magazine titled, “Case Study: Will the Real Mai Tai Please Stand Up?”
As with any sour, freshly squeezed limes produce the best results. “Don’t waste your time with store-bought or old lime juice,” Wiggins says. “Freshness matters.”
4. Garnish with restraint.
Mustipher’s Mai Tai recipe is garnished with half a juiced lime and fresh mint. Martin Cate, owner of San Francisco rum bar Smuggler’s Cove, uses the same in his recipe.
Kevin Beary, beverage director of Chicago tiki destination Three Dots and a Dash, is even more minimalist. “Use mint as a garnish, it’s all you need,” he writes VinePair in an email.
What to avoid when making Mai Tais
1. Don’t use just any rum on your shelf.
This is a spirit-forward drink, so choose yours wisely. According to one origin story, the Mai Tai was designed as a vehicle for 17-year-old J. Wray and Nephew Jamaican rum. That spirit is no longer in production (and the few remaining bottles rank among the world’s most expensive), so many modern bartenders blend Jamaican pot still and Martinican rums.
Mustipher suggests using a spirit with the same “grassy, vegetal notes” as traditional Jamaican rums, such as Hamilton 86 Demerara Rum, coupled with Paranubes.
“The proof of both rums is equally as important as the styles,” Beary adds. “When choosing a Jamaican rum, you should opt for something that is standard proof — around 80 (40 percent ABV) — whereas the rhum agricole should be higher proof (up around 114, a.k.a. navy strength).”
2. Leave your blender out of this.
Blending may seem festive, but it will actually dilute your flavors. Experts suggest either building your Mai Tai in your glass with ice, or shaking it with ice and then straining into a double rocks glass.
Trust us, this is not a buzzkill, it’s a bonus. As busy bartenders will tell you, a cocktail shaker is much easier to clean than a blender. From here to Tahiti, nothing is more valuable than time.