Gatekeeping the Mai Tai

As a Tiki drink enthusiast, it’s exciting to see new people joining the fold. Even the mainstream press is starting to give Tiki bars the respect they deserve. However, as a participant in many online Tiki groups, it’s hard to miss a surge in arguments over certain topics. What is a proper Mai Tai is foremost among them, but it goes deeper than that.

Any group that grows rapidly is bound to see more conflict; it’s a simple numbers game. But there’s something unusual about Tiki group dynamics that are sometimes not understood by all involved. Thus, I wanted to share my thoughts on what I believe is happening.

Context

Tiki restaurants were once considered high culture in the United States, peaking around the 1950s. Diners dressed up in formal clothes, as did much of the waitstaff. From this “Golden era” flowed many classic recipes like the Zombie, Navy Grog, and the Three Dots and a Dash.

But if any recipe from this era can claim to be first among equals, it’s the Mai Tai. It was created by Victor Bergeron (Trader Vic) in 1944. The recipe Vic wrote in 1970 goes:

  • 2 ounces of 17-year old J. Wray & Nephew Rum over shaved ice.
  • 1/2 ounce Holland DeKuyper Orange Curacao.
  • 1/4 ounce Trader Vic’s Rock Candy Syrup.
  • 1/2 ounce French Garnier Orgeat Syrup
  • Add juice from one fresh lime.

Hand shake and garnish with half of the lime shell inside the drink and float a sprig of fresh mint at the edge of the glass.

Putting aside the fact that 17-year old Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum is no longer available (and subject to much speculation), Vic’s recipe is straightforward to reproduce today. It’s essentially a daiquiri augmented by almond syrup (orgeat) and orange liqueur.

Made properly, it’s a well-balanced drink, neither too sweet nor too tart. All of its ingredients are squarely within the golden era’s ingredient palette. It’s also a gently bracing drink, in part because it’s not diluted by sweet juices like orange or pineapple. Also of note, it doesn’t have a “dark rum float.”

Vic’s “1944” Mai Tai recipe became a standard-bearer for the modern tiki movement for all these reasons. When someone resists a Tiki drink because they think it’s just sweet fruit juices and rum, a classic 1944 Mai Tai is often the gateway to changing people’s perceptions.

Royal Hawaiian

The beloved 1944 recipe wasn’t Vic’s only Mai Tai, however. Both Vic and Donn Beach constantly tinkered with and evolved their recipes, often while retaining the original menu names.

In 1953, Vic was contracted by Matson Steamship Lines to craft a signature set of recipes for their Hawaiian hotels. Among them was what came to be called the Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai: [i]

  • 0.5 oz Lime Juice
  • 0.25 oz Lemon Juice
  • 1 oz Orange Juice
  • 1 oz unsweetened Pineapple Juice
  • 0.25 oz Sugar Syrup
  • 0.25 oz Orgeat
  • 0.25 oz Orange Curacao
  • 1 oz Demerara Rum
  • 1 oz Dark Jamaican Rum
  • 1 oz Light Rum

The key structural elements of the 1944 recipe (lime juice, orgeat, orange curacao, Jamaican rum) are still in place. It’s the addition of orange and pineapple juices where it substantially deviates. One can’t fault Vic for making use of the Island’s readily available citrus juices.

It’s this recipe of Vic’s that particularly resonated with the drinking public and spawned countless takes in tropical bars around the globe. So successful were these citrus-forward drinks that “Mai Tai” became a generic name for any sort of juice-forward rum drink. It’s akin to how “Kleenex” became a generic word for a tissue.

While Vic’s version was well-balanced and solidly within the golden era pattern, untold thousands of “Mai Tais” concocted in bars over the years were overly sweet, syrupy messes. One might say the general public came to expect 12 ounces of orange and pineapple juice, a dash of white rum, and a dark rum float in their “Mai Tai.”

No.

In short, a disconnect formed between the public’s perception of Tiki drinks (overly sweet sugar bombs) and what they were like in the golden era.

Reclaiming the Mai Tai

From a high point in the 1950s, Tiki fell out of public favor and entered a dark period from around 1970 to 2000. In a 1989 New York Times article, “Trump to Close a ‘Tacky’ Trader Vic’s,” Trump was quoted saying: ”Trader Vic’s does not fit in with the image of the hotel that I want to achieve.”’ [ii]

When Tiki began its slow climb back to respectability in the late 1990s, it was an underground movement. Forefathers of the moment like Jeff Berry and Martin Cate faced serious challenges finding the exotic ingredients specified in golden-era recipes. Social media was in its infancy, so information sharing was usually via local meetups and bulletin boards.

The small, close-knit Tiki community of the time —one might dare call them a friendly tribe— faced headwinds from the public’s misperceptions of tiki drinks and were often met by eye rolls from those not in the know.

It’s only natural that these early adopters found a common cause and identity in defending tiki drinks and culture from public disdain. The Mai Tai became a de facto flag for Tiki enthusiasts to rally around. The original 1944 recipe became a reference point in defending the Mai Tai, and by extension, all Tiki drinks.

While Tiki drinks carry more respect today than they did two decades ago, enthusiasts know their hard-won ground can still slip away. How so?

Consider spirits companies promoting their products by incorporating them into a “Mai Tai” that mangles or omits most (if not all) of the 1944 ingredients. Dedicated tiki fanatics take this misrepresentation of their standard-bearer personally. It’s a similar story when a bar or restaurant features a “Mai Tai” on their menu that clearly isn’t anything like the 1944 original or the 1954 Royal Hawaiian update.

Gatekeeping

When these “attacks” on the Mai Tai’s good name and reputation come, Mai Tai defenders springs into action, calling out the affront to Mr. Bergeron. The recipes are publicly shamed in enthusiasts gathering points like the Tiki Recipes and Bad Mai Tais in the Wild Facebook groups.

Tiki outsiders (or even some newcomers) may view this public mocking as a tempest in a teapot; too much energy and vitriol expended on something of little importance. Others call it elitist or “gatekeeping.”[iii] But would it also be gatekeeping to call out a Manhattan with orange juice? What about a margarita without any trace of tequila, mezcal, or any other agave spirit? Where do we draw the line?

On one side of the line are “purists” who hew closely to the group norms established over time. On the other side, more laid-back people. Perhaps they’re unaware of the Tiki enthusiast norms or simply don’t care.

Who’s Right?

One of the fundamental strengths of online enthusiast groups is the vast difference in experience across its members. New Tiki enthusiasts ask questions and learn from highly respected professional bartenders. But that difference in experience levels also presents challenges.

In any long-running interest group, tribal knowledge and mores develop. Those who have invested substantial time and effort in the group naturally resist what they see as challenges to the group’s core ethos. When it comes to Tiki enthusiasts, it’s a longstanding tradition to “defend” tiki drinks against bastardizations and misrepresentations—the Mai Tai in particular. A wittily delivered takedown of an egregious Mai Tai recipe is a bonding experience of sorts.

Unfortunately, tribal wisdom and mores aren’t automatically transferred to group newcomers. Thus, when a newcomer suggests these takedowns are elitist gatekeeping, tempers flare. Exchanges like this are frequent:

Newcomer: Check out my Navy Grog! I didn’t have grapefruit juice, so I used pineapple juice. And I subbed cinnamon for honey syrup.

Tiki Veteran: Sounds great, but it’s not a navy grog. The grapefruit and honey are core flavor elements of that recipe.

Newcomer: Don’t be elitist. I like my Navy Grog the way I made it.

Narrator: Off to the races we go!

It’s sad to see; the Tiki community is usually very laid back and accepting. The whole point of Tiki is escapism and fun!

As someone who’s written a thing or two about Tiki, here’s how I see it:

Tiki groups should be fun and safe places to learn and share new ideas. The influx of new members is a net positive. There is no such thing as a dumb question. (There are questions one could easily find answers for via a quick internet search, but that’s a different issue.)

On the whole, the veterans are supportive of experimentation and learning; we were all beginners once. However, things are quick to flare when something challenges a tradition. One such tradition is respecting the given names and key ingredients of classic recipes.

As is often said in various ways: feel free to riff on the Navy Grog recipe if you’d like. But if three of the five ingredients are substantially changed, maybe don’t call it a Navy Grog. A common suggestion is to call the revised recipe something else. However, coming up with clever names isn’t always easy, and some folks simply don’t care enough to make the effort.

Some assert that the veterans are overly particular about what ingredients are “allowed.” I don’t observe that to be the case, generally speaking. Your choice of orgeat A or orgeat B is entirely a personal choice, and few would fault you for that.

However, if a recipe specifies an aged rhum agricole and you use a Jamaican overproof rum, most veterans will say you’ve substantially changed the recipes. Unlike bourbon or gin, rums aren’t so easily interchanged with each other. Rum styles are like cheese: blue cheese isn’t interchangeable with cheddar or parmesan. This realization often takes time to develop.

To recap: the grand, golden-era tradition of expertly crafted tropical libations was once nearly lost, replaced by a pale, sickly imitation of what it once was. For people who put their heart and soul into restoring the craft and tradition, Tiki is far from “anything goes if you like it.” What some people call gatekeeping, others believe is maintaining the high standards of the past and respectfully adding to the repertoire.

I don’t propose any lofty ways to improve the situation. However, by putting this important context into something more permanent than a Facebook comment, I hope it will be a resource for others.


A big shout-out to Brian Maxwell for the Mai Tai photo used at the top of this article. Brian is a Tiki true-believer, and you should check out his work at Shaker of Spirits.

If you want to learn more about the Mai Tai and its many variations, don’t miss Kevin Crossman’s site, The Search for the Ultimate Mai Tai.


[i] There’s debate about whether it was really Vic who specified the additions to the base 1944 Mai Tai. However, in this 1970 “The History of the Mai Tai”, he referenced creating drinks for Matson, and did not disown their version.

[ii] New York Times, “Trump to Close a ‘Tacky’ Trader Vic’s”, Jan. 25, 1989

[iii] The Urban Dictionary defines as “When someone takes it upon themselves to decide who does or does not have access or rights to a community or identity.”

Author: Matt Pietrek

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