After tasting Trader Vic’s latest concoction at his Oakland bar in 1944, a visitor from Tahiti proclaimed the drink “mai tai roa áe.” In the parlance of our times, this roughly translates to “awesome.” Vic named his drink the Mai Tai, which went on to enjoy fame less as a cocktail than as a symbol — a liquid vacation, Hawaii in a glass. But unlike other iconic holiday drinks, such as the Piña Colada, the Mai Tai was actually good. Although decades of cheap knock-offs tarnished its reputation well before our fin de siècle cocktail renaissance, Vic’s Mai Tai is now taking its rightful place in the pantheon: From San Francisco to New York, connoisseurs who usually turn up their noses at anything invented after 1917 have come to respect the elegant simplicity of Vic’s original recipe.
Tramping across Germany, Holland, and Britain last month, the Beachbum found that Europe’s cocktailians have also rediscovered the Mai Tai.
In Berlin, a trio of bars does Vic proud. Lebensstern is the most upmarket of the three, a labyrinthine lounge that occupies the entire second floor of a mansion once owned by silent movie star Henny Porten. Our bartender was Bernhard Stadler, who mixed formality and friendliness as skillfully as he mixed our Mai Tai (pictured above, with Bernhard in background). He combined fresh lime, Cointreau, orgeat, and a gold Jamaican rum we’d never heard of: Renegade Monymusk 5-year, a 92-proof, bracingly dry dram aged in Scotland in tempranillo wine casks.
Rumclub Berlin, Dirk Becker’s rowdy rumpus room of a bar, houses Dirk’s collection of vintage German rum vershnitt bottles (our favorites were Pott Rum, Robby 54, and Rum Polar, which featured a smiling Eskimo on the label). Like Bernhard, Dirk makes his house Mai Tai with lime, Cointreau, orgeat, and aged Jamaican rum, in this case Appleton Extra. He also offers a Rumclub Mai Tai, in the same mold but goosed by a secret “Mai Tai Rum Blend” and a house-made “Rumclub Intense Falernum.” Of the two, the Rumclub Mai Tai is definitely the one to order — intensified indeed by the thick, aromatic, boozy falernum.
With its windowless walls, opaque glass lampshades, and ancient reel-to-reel tape deck, the Rum Trader could pass as a set for Krapp’s Last Tape — if Beckett’s monologuist preferred Tiki to self-recrimination. A Trader Vic’s kava bowl enjoys pride of place among the antique bric-a-brac in the tiny room, which was opened in the 1970s by a bartender who once worked at the London Vic’s. Gregor Scholl, a dapper gent who likes vintage suits almost as much as vintage rums, was such a devoted customer that he ended up buying the bar. While his Mai Tai uses the Trader Vic template, it’s tarter and bolder, the perfect thing to nurse while time-tripping in Herr Scholl’s hideaway.
Vic’s formula got real workout at the Bols Bartending Academy in Amsterdam, where the Bum taught two full-day Tiki drink workshops with Bols staff Polynesiacs Rob “Ihi Lani” Rademaker, Jeanette Van Urk, and Malika Saidi (workshop pictured above; more photos by Ming Chao at Sensez Mixology). The Bols method is for the guest speaker to make a drink, then have the attendees make the same drink themselves at one of the high-tech classroom’s twelve individual bar stations. While everyone used Vic’s exact Mai Tai proportions, the crew from Eindhoven’s De Minibar chose to vary the rum mix. The results were fascinating: Mount Gay Extra Old rum paired well with anything, from aged Rhum Clément to young Havana Club, while El Dorado 12-year turned out to be the perfect accompaniment to … El Dorado 15-year. (Who knew?) Breaking taboo, we eventually dispensed with rum altogether and made a Vic Mai Tai with Bokma genever. Sacrilegious, but delicious.
No such nonsense occurs at Amsterdam’s premiere speakeasy, Door 74. Head bartender Timo Janse, who studies cocktails the way Rembrandt studied light, makes his Door 74 Mai Tai with a carefully considered rum blend: Barbancourt 5-Star, a Haitian sugar-cane rum that echoes and amplifies Vic’s midcentury use of Martinique agricole, and Angostura 1824, whose vanilla vibe adds another layer of flavor — one that doesn’t violate Vic’s intent, since Vic’s house sugar syrup did in fact contain a whisper of vanilla extract. Across town at Vesper bar, we sampled the Mai Tai of another Dutch Master: Stefano Andreotti (pictured below), who turned out to be a strict Classicist, opting for Vic’s preferred mix of aged Jamaican and Saint James Martinique rums.
Our first order of business in London was to try Alex Kratena’s Mai Tai at the Artesian Bar, upon which Atlantic Monthly’s cocktail columnist Wayne Curtis heaps praise — and praise is not something Mr. Curtis often heaps. Alex was off that night, but his colleague Simone Caporale more than made up for his absence, whipping up show-stopping drinks that looked as if Cecil Beaton had garnished them for Marie Antoinette. “You know, in the cartoons, when they hit the head, the birds fly around? That is how I see the garnish,” said Simone as he assembled a Rum Julep bedecked with a silver-bead necklace and a jewel-shaped pink sugar crystal, with ice diamonds adhering to the outside of the engraved julep cup … which arrived with a side of minted seasonal berries flambée. Oh, and did we mention that the rum in the Julep was the Artesian’s own bespoke blend, aged solera-style in a miniature cask behind the bar, and delivered from the cask to your chalice via an antique wooden ladle?
It was a hard act to follow, but the Artesian Mai Tai garnered even more curtain calls. Wray & Nephew Overproof, not the most subtle of rums, somehow combined with Appleton Extra, lime, and orgeat into a delicate, gossamer, elegantly refreshing cocktail, chilled by a single ice-ball exactly the diameter of the glass.
On the plane home, aglow with pleasant Mai Tai memories, we envisioned a not-too-distant future in which any Tiki toper, regardless of his or her physical location, could order a Mai Tai and actually get a Mai Tai — Trader Vic’s original, not the ersatz sugar-bombs that too many bars still serve, and too many customers still expect. But six miles high, our high was ruined by a glance at the in-flight cocktail menu. There, listed between the Stirring’s Margarita and Pomegranate Martini, was the Stirring’s Mai Tai: “Tropical blend of pineapple, orange and cranberry mixed with Bacardi silver rum.” Ach du lieber!