Ask five people what a Mai Tai is and we guarantee you will get a different answer from every one of them. Some will say it is a simple rum sour. Some will say it’s that drink with that hard to pronounce syrup made with almonds. While others will say it’s a layered, neon blue beach drank. To clear things up, and to find out how to make the best Mai Tai possible, we tapped Kevin Beary, the bar manager of much lauded Chicago tiki bar Three Dots and a Dash and creator of “The World’s Best Mai Tai.” Here, Beary shares his secrets on making the perfect Mai Tai—everytime.
It’s All About the Rum
As one would expect, the better the rum, the better the Mai Tai. And the style of rum you use as the base of the drink will determine the style of Mai Tai you’re making. Beary prefers to make Trader Vic’s version of the Mai Tai, which is one of the earliest iterations of the cocktail. In the drink, Beary splits the rum base between two different rums to give it depth and a richer, more complex flavor. His preferred blend is a mix of funky Jamaican rum (10-12 years old preferably) and a Martinique rhum agricole. According to Beary the proof of both rums is equally as important as the styles. When choosing a Jamaican rum, you should opt for something that is standard proof—around 80 (40 percent ABV)—whereas the rhum agricole should be higher proof (up around 114, aka navy strength).
Keep the Curaçao
Keeping true to Trader Vic’s Mai Tai, Beary keeps the measure of orange curaçao in his take on the classic. “I like to use [Pierre] Ferrand’s dry curaçao,” he says. “It has that really nice orange flavor and is drier [than others]. It’s higher proof—40 percent alcohol—without all the sweetness of lower proof curaçaos.” Pierre Ferrand is also made with a Cognac base, which complements the richness of the Jamaican rum and gives the drink even more depth.
Lime, Lemon, Orange, or Pineapple juice?
Again this depends on the Mai Tai you’re making. “With the early Trader Vic Mai Tai, it’s only lime,” says Beary. “You don’t see the addition of pineapple juice until the later recipes in the ‘60s. We categorize these Mai Tais as the Hawaiian Mai Tais.” Deviating from the simplicity of Vic’s original Mai Tai, a Hawaiian Mai Tai is typically made with light rum at the base, pineapple, lemon and orange juice from concentrate, orgeat, curaçao (typically of the blue variety), and a dark rum float. These are the Mai Tais that you’re likely to find at beach bars rather than tiki bars. While there’s nothing wrong with a Hawaiian Mai Tai per se (especially if you’re drinking one on the beach), it is not the purest form of the cocktail. If you prefer that style, however, the drink is far better with fresh juices at least.
Make Your Own Orgeat
“Orgeat makes or breaks a good Mai Tai,” says Beary. “It’s not just a flavor. It’s that beautiful, thick mouthfeel from the fresh almond milk.” Beary likes to make his own orgeat from scratch, and prefers his syrup to be very clean tasting and minimal. “I don’t add any rosewater or orange blossom water. And I hate covering that beautiful almond flavor with darker molasses tones from less refined sugars,” he says. For his recipe he takes skinless, blanched almonds, and soaks them in tap water for 24 hours in the fridge. He then strains the water off the almonds and adds equal parts (by weight) fresh water. Then he blends that and the almonds into a paste and strains it through a sieve, keeping the resulting almond milk, which he sweetens one-to-one with white sugar.
If you don’t have the time or patience to make your own orgeat, Beary suggests using Liquid Alchemist’s orgeat, a small batch syrup made in Los Angeles.
Swizzle That Sh*t
Crushed ice is key to a good Mai Tai. It allows the drink to dilute and open up as you drink it. But, if you’re going to serve your Mai Tai over crushed ice, it is important to remember not to over dilute the drink. It is not necessary to chill or dilute the drink in a shaker before it goes into the glass. At Three Dots and a Dash, Beary builds his Mai Tai in a metal tin, adds about 8 ounces of crushed ice and uses an old school Hamilton Beach milkshake mixer to essentially swizzle his Mai Tai at high speed (he then just dumps the drink from the mixer straight into the glass). If you’re at home, all you need to do to achieve the same effect is use a swizzle stick. Simply build the cocktail in a double rocks glass, add crushed ice until the drink fills the glass, and swizzle until it’s homogeneous—the drink louches (becomes opaque) when it is mixed. “You’re really just trying to get the lime juice to open up,” says Beary.
Mint Is the Only Garnish You Need
Skip the plastic mermaids, paper umbrellas, pineapple wedges and maraschino cherries. The only garnish a Mai Tai needs is a bouquet of fresh mint. “There’s something about the aroma that you get that perfectly compliments the lime and the orgeat when you’re pulling [the drink] up to your mouth,” says Beary. “I always make sure to use a really short straw so you get those aromatics from that big bunch of mint right up in your face.”