Video by Katherine Guanche

This may be one of the more bastardized cocktails served today, filled with syrups and fruit juices. As Tiki aficionados will tell you, though, a Mai Tai contains neither. And it’s one of the best cocktails out there.

At its base, a Mai Tai is a rum sour, a margarita using rum. That’s it—spirit, lime, orange liqueur. But! It is made complex and interesting by the combination of light and dark rums, as well as a hint of almond and mint. The better the rums, the better the cocktail, but frankly, there’s no reason you couldn’t use Meyer’s dark and Bacardi white rums and still have a fine cocktail.

As Justin Cristaldi says in his book Tiki Triangle, “What the Martini is to cocktail culture, the Mai Tai is to Tiki culture. It is by all means, the perfect cocktail.”

Having made several versions, I will quickly agree. Of all standard rum cocktails it is by far the most complex and interesting.

It was created at Trader Vic’s in the late 1940s, the Polynesian themed California bar, then became bastardized with fruit juices and syrups when it jumped to Hawaii. This bastardization (see for instance, the allrecipes version, the first recipe that comes up on my google search) led to inferior drinks and, I’m guessing, a lowering of the cultural clout of the Mai Tai. A great cocktail came to be thought of by many as a gimmick drink.

Not so. I urge one and all to give the Mai Tai a shot. Basic proportions: 1 ounce each dark and light rums, 1 ounce lime juice, 1/2 ounce curacao or other orange liqueur. A little orgeat syrup for the almond flavor, and perhaps a drop of simple syrup to balance the lime.

When I wrote to Justin to say I didn’t have any orgeat, he wrote back to say, “Try this, simple & better. 1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract, 3 oz sugar dissolved in 3 oz unsweetened almond milk (add extract last after it cools down). Trust me, it’s better than most of the junk out there.” I tried both and he’s right.

Herewith, Justin’s Mai Tai, from Tiki Triangle, and in the video, today’s poem Summer Night, by our country’s poet laureate, Joy Harjo.

The Mai Tai

THE classic Tiki cocktail, should be a standard classic
5 from 2 votes
Prep Time 3 mins
Course Cocktail
Cuisine American
Servings 1


  • 1 ounce dark rum
  • 1 ounce light rum
  • 1 ounce lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce curacao
  • 1/4 ounce almond syrup (orgeat or homemade as above)
  • 1/4 ounce simple syrup
  • 1 lime wedge
  • 1 mint sprig


  • Combine the fluids in a glass. Add ice and stir. Strain into an ice-filled glass. Garnish with lime and mint.
Keyword Lime, mai tai, rum, Tiki, trader vic’s