Trader Vic’s (1944)

You really can’t improve on perfection, but that hasn’t stopped the world from screwing up Trader Vic’s original Mai Tai for almost 70 years. I’ve already detailed the secretive and combative world of Tiki in my write-up about the Navy Grog – I’d say that contributed to the degradation of the Mai Tai, but Trader Vic himself also changed his recipe as time went on, adding more citrus juices (and more rum). Trader Vic originally used Wray & Nephew 17-year old rum in his recipe, but the Mai Tai was so popular, he actually depleted the world supply of that rum (or they just stopped making it), then the same with 15-year expression that came afterward. These days, the Trader Vic’s chain restaurants make the drink with a crappy, artificial-tasting bottled mix and inferior rum. Feel free to experiment with mixing two different rums (as I do here), or try just one kickass rum in this. My friend Matt “RumDood” Robold says he’s made this with Smith & Cross and “enjoyed it more than he probably should have” and I can back that up – even just a quarter-ounce in place of some of the aged Jamaican rum works great. The great bang-for-the-buck aged rum Appleton 12 is a minor luxury. If you’re up for it, make a batch of homemade orgeat (recipe below), or look around for B.G. Reynolds‘ excellent version. Either way, done right using this old-school recipe, the Mai Tai will take you back to the early days of Tiki, as US Marines were returning from the Pacific back home to southern California, eager to both remember and forget what they’d been through over there.

THE KIT

Hardware: Shaker, Jigger, Straws (optional), Hawthorne strainer (if using Boston shaker)
Ice: Ice cubes, Crushed ice
Glassware: Double rocks glass
Spirits: Aged Jamaican rum (recommended: Appleton Estate 12 or Reserve), aged rhum agricole (recommended: Neisson Élevé Suis Bois or Rhum J.M. Vieux VSOP)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Curaçao (recommended: Senior Curaçao of Curaçao, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao), Simple syrup, Orgeat (recommended: BG Reynolds’ or make your own; recipe below)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lime juice, Lime hull half (reserve from squeezing), Fresh spearmint

HOW TO

In a shaker about a third-full with ice cubes, add:

1 oz aged Jamaican rum
1 oz aged rhum agricole
1 oz lime juice
1/2
oz Curaçao
1/4
oz orgeat
1/4
oz simple syrup

Shake well to chill. Fill a Double Old Fashioned glass with crushed ice, then strain the drink over the ice, adding more ice to top if needed. Garnish with the spent lime hull half (rind side up) and a mint sprig that’s been lightly slapped against the rim of the glass to release its aromatic oils. Optionally, serve with two straws cut to size.

ORGEAT

In a heavyweight Ziploc, break up 2 1/2 cups whole, raw almonds – looking for large chunks, not powder. A rolling pin or muddler works well. Toast at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. In a saucepan, combine the crushed, toasted almonds with 2 cups of sugar and 1 1/2 cups of water. Bring to a simmer, then cook 4 minutes or so, stirring. Remove from heat and let cool, then pour into an airtight container and let steep 24 hours. Strain the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into a jar or bottle (it’ll take a while to slowly drip out), then add 12 drops of orange flower water, 12 drops of rose water, and 1 oz of overproof vodka to help reduce spoilage. Shake to blend. Keep refrigerated. Will last about 3 months.

Trader Vic’s, 1950s

The persistant rivalry between California tiki chains Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s often resulted in confusion for the customer. Both had a Mai Tai on their menu, both claimed to have invented it – and their versions were very different flavor-wise. On top of that, their Mai Tai recipes changed as the years went by, often resulting in a less-interesting drink.

A similar case with the Navy Grog – competing recipes, confusing origins, lessening quality over time. And it bears almost no relation to the “grog” consumed by British sailors, a mix of rum and water. Frank Sinatra considered the Navy Grog his favorite drink at the Palm Springs Don the Beachcomber back in the day – but this is the version the rival Trader Vic’s was serving in the ’50s. I’ve tasted both and this one’s the champ. Knockout champ, if you’re not careful!

There’s an unusual-sounding ingredient here – “Pimento Dram.” No, that’s not the red blobby things from inside an olive. Down in the West Indies, they call the Allspice tree “Pimento.” This traditional Carribean liqueur is simply allspice-infused demerara rum mixed with a brown sugar syrup. Easy and fun to make at home, so long as you can stand waiting a few weeks for it to come together.

THE KIT

Hardware: Shaker, jigger
Ice: Ice cubes, crushed ice
Glassware: Double rocks glass
Spirits: Light rum (recommended: Havana Club 3, Caña Brava, Cruzan), Gold rum (recommended: Appleton, Mount Gay), 151 demerara rum (recommended: Lemon Hart)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Pimento Dram (recommended: St Elizabeth Allspice Dram or make your own  – recipe below)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lime juice, Grapefruit juice (white, if you can get it), Lime twist, Grapefruit twist

HOW TO

In a shaker about half-full with ice cubes, add:
1 oz light rum
1 oz gold rum
1 oz 151 demerara rum
3/4 oz lime juice
3/4 oz pimento dram
1/2 oz grapefruit juice

Shake well to blend and chill, then strain into a double rocks glass filled with crushed ice (an ice cone with a straw running through it was the style at Trader Vic’s, but can be impractical for home use).

Garnish with a lime twist and grapefruit twist.

 

PIMENTO DRAM

Step One
Light toast 1/4 cup whole dried allspice berries, then crush to break up, but not pulverize. In an airtight container, combine the crushed toasted allspice berries with 1 1/8 cups 151 demerara rum (Lemon Hart). Let steep 10 days in a cool, dark place.

Step Two
After 10 days, strain the infused rum through cheesecloth, then a coffee filter, to remove allspice. In a saucepan over medium-low heat, combine 1 1/2 cups water with 2 1/2 cups brown sugar. Stir to blend until sugar is completely dissolved. Let brown sugar syrup cool, then add the infused rum. Funnel into an airtight glass bottle or jar and let sit 30 days in the refrigerator. This will level out the heat of the allspice. Keep refrigerated.

Milk & Honey, New York City (2007)

Here’s a fine example of the current “craft” movement in cocktails – combining culinary techniques with bold flavors to create something new and amazing. This one’s by Sam Ross of Milk & Honey and Little Branch, two of New York’s craft bars getting a lot of attention these past couple years. A friend who tried this drink recently said she had an immediate flashback to watching her grandfather work on his car in his garage. Something about the smokiness of the Islay whiskey floating on top triggered that memory, and I like that idea. Not-so-basic aspects of this one: double-straining and floating a spirit on the drink’s surface. Just lower a barspoon, convex side up, to the surface of the drink and gently pour the Islay Scotch over the back of the spoon. It’ll settle on top without sinking in too much.

THE KIT

Hardware: Shaker, Jigger, Muddler, Barspoon, Fine mesh strainer, Cocktail pick
Ice: Ice cubes, Ice chunk
Glassware: Double Old Fashioned glass
Spirits: Scotch whiskies (blended {recommended: The Famous Grouse} & Islay {recommended: Ardbeg or Bowmore})
Mixers & Liqueurs: Honey syrup
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Fresh ginger, Fresh lemon juice, Candied ginger

HOW TO

Chill a double Old Fashioned glass in the freezer at least ten minutes.
In a shaker, add:
3 slices fresh ginger (peeled)
Muddle well to pulverize ginger and extract its juice. Add ice cubes to about a third-full, then add:
2 oz blended Scotch whisky
3/4 oz lemon juice
3/4 oz honey syrup
Shake well to blend and chill, then double-strain into the chilled glass through a fine mesh strainer over a large ice chunk or two to three ice cubes. Gently pouring over the back of a barspoon at the surface of the drink, add:
1/4 oz Islay Scotch whisky
Garnish with a slice of candied ginger skewered on a cocktail pick.

HONEY SYRUP

Honey Syrup keeps honey from freezing and seizing when mixed in cocktails. Just mix three parts honey with one part water over low heat and stir to combine. Keep cool.

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