What is great with classic cocktails is that they have such a strong structure, even with a twist they still make fabulous drinks. That explains why great cocktails are an endless source of inspiration. You can riff on them to death and still come up with something decent.
Mai Tai variations are generally built on a template of base spirit | citrus | orgeat | orange liqueur. In its classic iteration, the Mai Tai is a sour where aged rum is the base spirit, lime is the citrus, and orgeat (almond syrup) + orange curaçao serve a dual purpose as the sweeteners and modifiers. The orgeat adds a nutty, floral and slightly creamy flavor to the drink, while the curaçao contributes a foundation of bitter orange peel. Here is the original Trader Vic recipe for reference.
Mai Tai (Trader Vic, 1944)
1 oz dark Jamaican rum
1 oz aged Martinique rum
1 oz lime juice
1/2 oz orgeat
1/2 oz orange curaçao
1/4 oz sugar syrup
Shake with ice, strain into a double old fashioned glass filled with crushed ice
Garnish with a spent lime shell and a bouquet of mint
After a visit to the Bling Pig in London, I was inspired to create a walnut Mai Tai by making a walnut orgeat and infusing the walnuts in the rum (Smith & Cross which is an especially flavorful type of pot still Jamaican rum). I also replaced the Martinique rum with batavia arrack, a super funky spirit distilled from sugar cane like rum and fermented red rice.
Walnut Mai Tai | 3/4 oz batavia arrack | 3/4 oz walnut-infused smith & cross rum | 3/4 oz lime juice | 3/4 oz walnut orgeat | 1/2 oz clement creole shrubb | shake with ice | strain into a double old fashioned glass filled with crushed ice | spent lime and mint garnish | drizzle with whiskey barrel aged and pecan bitters
What happens when you start using spirits that are not cane spirits in a Mai Tai? Ivy Mix came up with a creative mezcal variation on the Mai Tai. Structure-wise, she didn’t venture too much from the original. What she did was replace the aged Martinique rum with mezcal (she uses Vida mezcal which has a healthy dose of smoke and pepper in addition to its agave notes).
Tia Mia (Ivy Mix) | 1 oz mezcal | 1 oz Jamaican rum | 3/4 oz lime juice [up this to 1 oz in keeping with the classic Mai Tai, or reduce the amount of simple syrup to 1 tsp] | 1/2 oz orgeat | 1/2 oz orange curacao | 1/4 oz simple syrup | shake with ice | strain into a double old fashioned glass filled with crushed ice | garnish with mint sprig, spent lime wheel and orchid blossom
When I tried this drink, I used Appleton 12, Vida mezcal, Pierre Ferrand dry curaçao per the original recipe, and homemade orgeat. I went with the ratios from the original recipe and 1 tsp of simple syrup. I figured that I could always add more, and it was fine as is.
The mezcal is great is this drink. I did not find it overpowering but you can definitely taste it. It’s complex, smoky and funky.
Even with cane spirits, there is enough room for creativity with Mai Tai variations. Cachaça, the Brazilian cousin of rhum agricole, is used as the base in Dave Shenaut’s Leaning to Tie (I used Leblon which is very grassy). He swaps the lime juice for orange juice, and uses a touch of Campari to replace the orange liqueur. He also adds a good dose of pastis (I used St. George absinthe).
Without lime juice, the drink is less acidic and sweeter than a regular Mai Tai. The flavor is hard to describe, but there is something really intriguing in the way it all meshes together, herbal and nutty flavors.
Learning to Tie (Dave Shenaut) | 1 1/4 oz cachaça | 1 oz orange juice | 1 oz orgeat | 1/2 tsp Campari | 1/2 oz absinthe verte | stir with ice | strained into a stemmed glass [I went the Mai Tai route and strained into a double OF glass filled with crushed ice] | garnish with an orange twist tied into a knot
Continuing to run with this idea of white rhum agricole with absinthe in a Mai Tai twist, I found a recipe by Brian Miller that I really loved. This one goes back to basics with only rums as the base, and the classic combination of orgeat with orange liqueur, which is augmented by absinthe.
Everything was harmonious and well integrated, including the absinthe. There were some crazy coconut notes that kept coming. It reminded me of my first Mai Tai efforts many years ago when I used to spike them with a bit of coconut rum, but infinitely better.
My Oh My Ty (Brian Miller) | 1 oz white rhum agricole (La Favorite) | 1 oz Plantation Barbados 5 (Flor de Cana 7 was specified) | 1 oz lime juice | 1/2 oz orgeat (homemade) | 1/2 oz Clement creole shrubb | 1/4 oz absinthe | simple syrup [skipped] | shake with ice | strain into a double old fashioned glass filled with crushed ice | mint sprig garnish
Here is another rendition of the My Oh My Ty, this time with Kō Hana Kea (white) Lahi for the rhum agricole. This rum is made from freshly pressed cane juice from a single varietal (Lahi) grown in Hawaii. The glasses by Michael Uhlenkott.
With mezcal we introduced smoke into the Mai Tai. Why not go further and use another smoky spirit in the Mai Tai with a blended scotch, skipping the rum altogether. Mood-wise, it is a wintery take on the Mai Tai.
I had a coconut orgeat that I used in the drink because of the know affinity between Scotch & coconut (yes, there is such a thing… it’s Caribbean!). My coconut orgeat is lighter than an almond orgeat, so I skipped the simple syrup and went all orgeat.
Winter Mai Tai (original) | 2 oz Highland Park 12 | 1 oz lime juice | 3/4 oz homemade coconut orgeat | 1/2 oz Pierre Ferrand Dry curacao | shake with ice | strain into a double old fashioned glass filled with crushed ice | garnish with the spent lime shell and a mint bouquet
Last but not least, beer in a Mai Tai! This seems wild and seems very out-of-the-box, but it makes sense if you think of it as a sparkling Mai Tai. Most cocktails can be turned into sparkling cocktails by the addition of sparkling water or champagne and careful adjustments to the recipe. Beer is a genius way to add both bubbles and flavor. Of course it’s a tricky thing to do, especially here because a super bold IPA is used! But something more tame might just blend into the background.
I tried it with Flor de Cana for the white rum, Plantation Barbados for the aged rum, and homemade orgeat. For the beer I went a little overboard and used Stone RuinTen IPA (“A Stage Dive into a Mosh Pit of Hops”, IBU 110). It was surprisingly delicious and refreshing. The IPA added a bitter element and grapefruit notes, with the hops contributing some crazy herbal/floral flavors.
Mai-TaIPA (Jacob Grier) | 1 oz white rum [Flor de Cana 4 year] | 1 oz aged rum [Plantation 5 Barbados] | 1 oz lime juice | 3/4 oz orgeat | 1/2 oz orange liqueur [Cointreau] | shake with ice | strain into a Collins glass over ice | add 1.5 oz IPA | garnish with a cherry
The Mai Tai is truly a versatile cocktail that can inspire many interesting variations. Let me know if you have come across any other interesting ones that I should try!