by Victor J. "Trader Vic" Bergeron
San Francisco 1970
Earlier this year, a long time friend from Tahiti, Carrie Guild (now Mrs.
Howard Wright), sent me a column from a Honolulu newspaper which once again
has raised the argument over where the Mai Tai was born and who originated
I originated the Mai Tai and have put together a bit of the background on
the evolution of this drink, which has earned worldwide identification and
acceptance. There has been a lot of conversation over the beginning of
this drink. Many have claimed credit, including Harry Owens. The people
who now own Trader Vic's in Honolulu (which at this time has no connection
with the Trader Vic operations on the mainland) claimed it was originated
in Tahiti .... This aggravates my ulcer completely. The drink was never
introduced by me in Tahiti except informally through our good friends,
Eastham and Carrie Guild.
In 1944, after success with several exotic rum drinks, I felt a new drink
was needed. I thought about all the really successful drinks; martinis,
manhattans, daiquiris .... All basically simple drinks.
I was at the service bar in my Oakland restaurant. I took down a bottle of
17-year-old rum. It was J. Wray Nephew from Jamaica; surprisingly golden
in color, medium bodied, but with the rich pungent flavor particular to the
Jamaican blends. The flavor of this great rum wasn't meant to be
overpowered with heavy additions of fruit juices and flavorings. I took a
fresh lime, added some orange curacao from Holland, a dash of Rock Candy
Syrup, and a dollop of French Orgeat, for its subtle almond flavor. A
generous amount of shaved ice and vigorous shaking by hand produced the
marriage I was after. Half the lime shell went in for color ... I stuck
in a branch of fresh mint and gave two of them to Ham and Carrie Guild,
friends from Tahiti, who were there that night. Carrie took one sip and
said, "Mai Tai - Roa Ae". In Tahitian this means "Out of This World - The
Best". Well, that was that. I named the drink "Mai Tai".
This drink enjoyed great acceptance over the next few years in California
and in Seattle when we opened Trader Vic's there in 1948. In 1953 the Mai
Tai was brought by me to the Hawaiian Islands, when I was asked by the
Matson Steamship Lines to formalize drinks for the bars at their Royal
Hawaiian, Moana and Surfrider Hotels. Any old Kamaaina can tell you about
this drink and of its rapid spread throughout the islands.
In 1954 we further introduced the Mai Tai when we included it among other
new drinks in bar service for the American President Lines. It is
estimated that several thousand Mai Tais are served daily in Honolulu
alone, and we sell many more than that daily in our eighteen Trader Vic's
restaurants throughout the world. I have let Eddie Sherman, the columnist
on the above mentioned Honolulu Star Bulletin, know who originated this
drink and think it is time the general public knows that these are the
facts of the evolution and growth of the Mai Tai.
In fairness to myself and to a truly great drink, I hope you will agree
when I say, "Let's get the record straight on the Mai Tai".
THE ORIGINAL FORMULA
The rum which motivated the creation of the Mai Tai
was a fine, golden, medium-bodied Jamaican from Kingston. Trader Vic added
fresh lime juice, flavored and sweetened it with Orange Curacao from
Holland and French Orgeat with its subtle flavor of almond. The drink
chilled nicely with a considerable amount of shaved ice so a large 15-ounce
glass was selected to compliment the cooling and generous quality of the
The success of the Mai Tai and its acceptance soon caused the 17-year-old
rum to become unavailable, so it was substituted with the same fine rum
with 15 years aging which maintained the outstanding quality.
THE MAI TAI GOES HAWAIIAN
During the early 1950's Trader Vic took the Mai
Tai to Honolulu while creating drinks for the Matson Line Hotels. He
introduced ten exotic drinks in the Royal Hawaiian's bar. The Mai Tai
caught on and within 30 days everyone had forgotten the other nine. The
supply of 15-year-old rum was becoming less than dependable so several
other Caribbean products were tested for the same high qualities of flavor.
Red Heart and Coruba were selected to be used in equal quantities along
with the original 15-year-old to stretch the supply and maintain the
character of the Mai Tai.
A few years earlier the supply of quality French Orgeat had also become
uncertain so Henry Smith, who produced vitamins for the Galen Company in
Oakland, collaborated with Trader Vic to produce and bottle his own Orgeat.
The mid 1950's signaled the end of a dependable supply of the 15-year-old
J. Wray Nephew Rum. This fact as well as problems with consistent quality
in the other Jamaican London Dock Rums caused Trader Vic to make private
arrangements, in the interest of high quality, to blend and bottle a
Jamaican rum under his own label and control. Consistent quality was
maintained in both a 15- and 8-year aging. This rum, though excellent,
didn't exactly match the end flavor of the original 17-year old product.
This desired nutty and snappy flavor was added by the use of a Martinique
rum. During this period Trader Vic had also changed the original Orange
Curacao to one produced by Bols which was more to his liking. The
popularity of the Mai Tai demanded that production on the bars be
streamlined. Each individual bar was instructed to pre-mix the Curacao,
Orgeat and Rock Candy Syrup in appropriate amounts.
By the early 1960's there were several Trader Vic's restaurants. The Mai
Tai had developed into one of the most known and ordered drinks throughout
the world and many people expressed interest in being able to make the Mai
Tai at home.
Trader's son, Victor J. (Joe) Bergeron III, was developing a constantly
expanding variety of items from the Food Products Company. With this
dynamic facility and the increasing market Trader Vic decided to produce
and bottle a total Mai Tai rum and also a Mai Tai flavoring mix under the
Trader Vic label. This was to be for restaurant use and also for retail
sale. This rum was made to recapture the characteristics of the original
17-year-old rum. First he skillfully blended Jamaican rums and then added
Martinique rum for its elusive and wonderful nutlike flavor and a bit of
light Virgin Island rum for the smoothness of body. This combination
became the Trader Vic Mai Tai rum as we know it today. The public palate
had become more sophisticated and it became necessary to adjust the
sweetness of the Mai Tai by lessening the amount of Mai Tai Mix and adding
a touch more lime juice.