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The story of the classic Mai Tai

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1934 | Los Angeles, USA

At the beginning, tikis were Polynesian and Hawaiian idols, representing the gods of Pacific Islander cultures that created the first humans. But the story of how the statues created a whole line of tiki cocktails is worthy of its own novel about industrial espionage.

In 1934, Don Beachcomber opened his first tiki bar, kitting out a Hollywood restaurant under his own name with rum cocktails and tropical décor. That same year, Victor Bergeron single-handedly built a little wooden restaurant with the look of a hunting lodge in Oakland, and called it Hinky-Dinks.

Three years later, Vic made a trip to Cuba, New Orleans, and Los Angeles in search of new ideas. Having visited Don Beachcomber’s neck of the woods, Vic took with him both an exotic entourage and the recipe for the Q.B. Cooler, which Don himself made for him. Later, Vic changed it ever so slightly and turned it into the Mai Tai that we know and love. Don didn’t wish to public discuss it. When Vic’s name came up in conversation, he responded: “I’d rather ignore him”. In 1972, Vic shared his own version of events. In his words, in 1944 he served his guests a new drink featuring 17-year-old Jamaican rum and Curaçao. At that moment, Vic’s friends and Tahiti residents, Ham and Carrie Guild, were at the bar. When they tried this brand-new creation, Carrie exclaimed in Tahitian, “Mai tai-roa aé!” – in English, “out of this world – the best!” The cocktail was thus named.

 

The drink quickly became popular. In 1948, the second Trader Vic’s opened, and then – twenty more around the world. The trading empire quickly grew and began to make more than just glasses and t-shirts with the restaurant’s logo: they started to produce their own rum, too. Incidentally, the original Mai Tai can be sampled today at Merchant in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The drink costs £750, and just like in 1944, is made with 17-year-old J.Wray & Nephew rum – of which only six bottles remain.

See the recipe

 

Historian: Vladimir Zhuravlev

Illustration: Mine

Journalists: Sara Davis, Samantha Johnson

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