To make a real and proper mai tai, the way God and Trader Vic Bergeron intended, you typically need a lot of ingredients.
The 1944 classic, created at the famous Trader Vic’s in Oakland, California, calls for a dark Jamaican, as well as a dry, white rum. Then you’ll need an aged, agricole-style rum from Martinique, alongside orange Curaçao. Oh, and don’t forget the fresh lime and orgeat, a syrup created from soaking and straining almonds.
That’s why sipping a perfect mai tai often requires you to be sitting in a reputable craft cocktail bar or an acclaimed tiki establishment. However, the complexity of this drink leads lesser bartenders to take shortcuts—or, to commit outright blasphemies.
“I’ve had them served red, yellow, and blue, with pineapple juice and grenadine—neither of which is in the recipe,” says Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the renowned tiki historian, author, and owner of Latitude 29 cocktail bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter. So Berry and Adam Kolesar, the owner of Orgeat Works in Brooklyn, sought the answer to a niche conundrum: How do we make a great mai tai without reaching for Curaçao, multiple rums, and almond syrup? How do we bring the drink home?
“We wanted one ingredient that would stand in for all the hard-to-find aspects,” Berry says. “It took us three years, and the formula is all Adam’s genius.”
The duo’s Latitude 29 Wiki Wiki Mai Tai Mix launched this winter, sporting a tropical pink label with a design that cues tiki nostalgia. Inside the bottle, all-natural ingredients mimic the marriage of four key ingredients. “Adam managed to infuse the flavor of orange Curaçao; the nutty floral notes of agricole rhum; that woodsy, dark element you find in aged Jamaican rum; and orgeat … into a single syrup,” Berry says. “All you need now is lime juice, dry white rum, and a shaker.”
Using the mix, your home mai tai will bear a soft amber color, emit the faint aroma of sweet almonds when you inhale, and on the sip, deliver a delicate dance between the funkiness of old rum and the bracing beauty of fresh lime. In Hawaii “wiki wiki” means quickly, and Berry adds that the Mai Tai Mix not only speeds up your prep, but also allows for ample experimentation.
“I get a million requests at Latitude 29 for a vodka mai tai,” he says. “You can’t make those, because vodka has no flavor. This mix actually works with vodka. You can use bourbon and craft a Kentucky mai tai, or teaspoon in a glass for a great old-fashioned.”
Staying sober? Add Wiki Wiki to lime juice and top with soda water for an alcohol-free mai tai highball. (And if you’re looking to expand your tiki repertoire, Kolesar and Berry previously created two other fine syrups, the Latitude 29 Orgeat and a Latitude 29 Formula Falernum—an essential in tiki classics like the Jet Pilot and the Zombie.)
If you can’t get to your nearest tiki bar (who can thanks to Covid-19?) or you really need a vacation (who doesn’t?), then it’s a fine time to start making tiki cocktails at home.
Make sure you have a jigger, Berry says, “because you can’t free-pour with tiki drinks. There’s so much going, you have to be precise. Always squeeze your own fresh lime and lemon,” he continues, “but bottled orange and pineapple juices are fine. And, of course, you’ll need lots of rum! You can make most of the great tropical drinks if you stock five rums: a dry white, a medium-bodied gold, a dark Jamaican punch rum, a Martinique rhum agricole, and a smoky demerara rum from Guyana.” And when it’s time to pour, you’ll need a great tiki mug—Berry says he hunts for his in antique malls and on Etsy. “Back in the day, you could find amazing stuff at thrift stores, but that’s rare now.”
As for “Beachbum,” the Zombie is his pandemic cocktail of choice. It has him considering his next syrup project with Kolesar, too. “The Zombie has three times as many ingredients as a mai tai, though, and making a syrup for it is like climbing Everest without any oxygen,” he says with a laugh. “We shall see.”