Story by David Thompson
Photos by Olivier Koning
Nothing says Hawaiian vacatýon
quite like a mai tai. It’s the drink that tells you, You’ve arrived! Aloha! Hang loose, catch the sunset, let the tropical getaway begin! Never mind that it was invented in California and has a Tahitian name, the mai tai belongs in Hawai‘i. It’s friendly, fun loving and democratic, with none of the highbrow affectations of, say, the Manhattan. That does not mean, though, that it isn’t deep. When made correctly the mai tai is a complex cocktail, with a sweet-ness carefully balanced by lime, complementary flavors of rum stacked on top of each other and a bundle of aromatic notes.
A real mai tai arrives before it ever touches your lips, telling your nose about the good things to come with a faint floral bouquet and hints of spice. Once it’s made its entrance, a union of texture, temperature and tannins plays agreeably upon your tongue. And after it’s gone down the hatch, pleasantly layered flavors linger on your palate. Like a vacation itself, a good mai tai has a beginning, a middle and an end.
If that doesn’t sound like any mai tai you’ve ever had, well, you’re not alone. The mai tai may be an icon of good times in the Islands, but far too often it’s simply a bad drink. Order a mai tai at just about any Waikiki bar and you’re likely to get a concoction that’s sold its culinary soul, trading balance and integrity for high proofs and fruity sweetness. “Most of the mai tais out there are absolutely disgusting,” says renowned Honolulu mixologist Joey Gottesman. “And unfortunately that’s what most people have come to know as a mai tai.”