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Mai-Kai cocktail review: Trade in Vic’s Mai Tai for this classic

Mai-Kai cocktail review: Trade in Vic's Mai Tai for this classic

Updated August 2020
See below: Our Mai Tai review | Tribute recipe UPDATED
Related: The off-menu Suffering Bastard was just a Mai Tai with a kick
What could be Cooler than a Mai Tai history lesson? | Mai-Kai cocktail guide

More than 75 years after its invention, the Mai Tai is widely hailed as the definitive tropical drink. You’ll get some arguments from Zombie fans like myself, but there’s no denying that the Mai Tai is one of the world’s most popular and distinctive cocktails, period.

The Mai Tai (front) is one of The Mai-Kai's signature drinks. (Photo by by Go11Events.com, courtesy of The Mai-Kai; waitress: Maima)
The Mai Tai (front) is one of The Mai-Kai’s signature drinks. (Photo by Go11Events.com, courtesy of The Mai-Kai; waitress: Maima)

Much has been written about how to make an “authentic” Mai Tai, as created by Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron, circa 1944. Tiki cocktail author and historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry has a very concise history lesson and recipe posted here. As the Bum points out, the argument over who really invented the drink persists to this day.

We subscribe to Berry’s theory that Trader Vic created the Mai Tai after tasting a Don the Beachcomber drink with a similar flavor profile called the Q.B. Cooler. Donn Beach, who created the Tiki bar concept in 1934 in Los Angeles, also had a drink called the Mai Tai Swizzle, but it was gone from the menu by 1937. It’s widely accepted that Vic frequented Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood before opening his first Trader Vic’s in Oakland. Could he have lifted the name from one drink and the flavor profile from another in creating his Mai Tai?

It’s entirely possible, but that has nothing to do with The Mai-Kai, or its version of the Mai Tai. The Mai-Kai already serves a descendant of the Q.B. Cooler called the K.O. Cooler (See our previous review). If you’re looking for the taste of a proto Trader Vic’s Mai Tai, try the K.O. Cooler.

The Mai Tai served at The Mai-Kai is one of many variations created in the wake of the success of the original drink. You’ll find some good examples from vintage Tiki restaurants in Beachbum Berry’s cocktail books and app, including the Bali Hai Mai Tai, Damon’s Mai Tai, Kon-Tiki Mai Tai and Surf Room Mai Tai. Until recently, many bars offered an inferior or bastardized copy. But the Tiki and craft cocktail movements have resulted in a much more creative atmosphere, especially where the Mai Tai is concerned. Check out the links below for examples:
* Florida bartender wins Chairman’s Reserve Mai Tai Challenge at The Mai-Kai
* More Mai Tai recipes on The Atomic Grog

A Mai Tai at The Mai-Kai in April 2013
A Mai Tai at The Mai-Kai in April 2013. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

In the mid-century, however, The Mai-Kai was not quick to jump on the Mai Tai bandwagon. The cocktail has not been spotted on a menu before 1970 (see image). It’s missing from all previous menus in our collection, including this one from 1966.

At first, it was likely an off-menu drink made upon request, like the Scorpion and Suffering Bastard, two other Trader Vic’s classics popular with many guests. The latter finally made it to The Mai-Kai’s menu during the last major update in 2018.

Rather than copying Vic’s recipe, Mai-Kai mixologist Mariano Licudine put his own spin on the Mai Tai (and Suffering Bastard), owing to his roots as one of Don the Beachcomber’s early Filipino barmen. He worked behind one of Donn Beach’s original Hollywood bars in 1939 before becoming assistant bar manager at the Chicago location during his years there (1940-1955). He joined The Mai-Kai as bar manager in 1956, crafting its opening day menu with owners Bob and Jack Thornton.

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Minimalist Tiki

Mai-Kai cocktail review: What could be Cooler than a Mai Tai history lesson?

K.O. Cooler, October 2017. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Updated July 2018
See below: Our K.O. Cooler review | Ancestor recipes | Tribute recipe
Related: Trade in Vic’s Mai Tai for this classic | Mai-Kai cocktail guide

Beachbum Berry presents Don the Beachcomber's Q.B. Cooler, which he made during a symposium on the history of the Mai Tai at The Hukilau 2009 at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Go11Media)
Beachbum Berry presents Don the Beachcomber’s Q.B. Cooler, which he made during a symposium on the history of the Mai Tai at The Hukilau 2009 at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Go11Media)

It’s 1937. A budding Oakland, Calif., restaurateur named Victor Bergeron ventures south to Hollywood to see for himself what all the hoopla is about surrounding a small tropical-themed bar called Don the Beachcomber. According to legend, Bergeron was inspired to adopt the same Polynesian theme and shortly thereafter changed the name of his restaurant from Hinky Dink’s to Trader Vic’s.

The rest is history, and Trader Vic’s remains the standard-bearer for Polynesian restaurants worldwide with more than 25 locations. The Don the Beachcomber chain disappeared, save for a lone corporate restaurant/bar location at the Royal Kona Resort in Hawaii and a recently closed one-off franchise in Huntington Beach, Calif., that’s reportedly reopening soon in a new location. Neither, however, have much tangible connection to founder Donn Beach. He officially left the company when his ex-wife, Sunny Sund, took the helm during World War II.

Our nation’s soldiers always held a special place in the heart of Beach, a veteran of the Army Air Corps during WW II and recipient of both a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. One of the drinks on Beach’s menu in 1937 was the Q.B. Cooler, named for the Quiet Birdmen, a drinking fraternity of aviators founded by seven World War I pilots in 1921. Donn changed his Q.B. Cooler recipe over the years, but as cocktail historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry revealed in his 2007 book, Sippin’ Safari, the original version tastes remarkably similar to what Trader Vic later introduced to the world as perhaps the most famous of all tropical drinks, the Mai Tai.

Beachbum Berry discusses the history of the Mai Tai and its relation to the K.O. Cooler during his symposium at The Hukilau 2009 at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Go11Events.com)
Beachbum Berry discusses the history of the Mai Tai and its relation to the K.O. Cooler during his symposium at The Hukilau 2009 at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Go11Events.com)

As Berry theorized in the book and later demonstrated during a symposium at the 2009 Hukilau at The Mai-Kai, it’s likely that Bergeron created the Mai Tai by copying the flavor profile of the Q.B. Cooler. What’s remarkable is that the Mai Tai contains quite different ingredients (orange curacao, sugar syrup, orgeat syrup). The two drinks have only rum and lime juice in common. But it’s undeniable that the tastes are incredibly similar.

Of course, Bergeron later claimed that he invented the Mai Tai in 1944 and eventually won a court battle that established him as the originator of the famous cocktail. Berry puts forward the theory that Bergeron most likely did invent the Mai Tai as we all know it, but he was inspired by the Q.B. Cooler and re-created it using almost entirely different ingredients. In honor of the battle to make the best Mai Tai, the Royal Kona holds on popular bartending competition every year dubbed the Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Festival.

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