On March 11, 2020, we gathered a panel of experts at New York’s Jungle Bird for an evening of Mai Tai marvel. Then, on March 22, the state’s pandemic stay-at-home order came into effect. These events were not related, but it made this evening perhaps the Last Cocktail Soirée on Earth (For a While).
The discussion is presented in two parts, of which this is the second. Read Part 1 here.
Meet the team:
Garret Richard left a career in radio to pursue his love of exotic cocktails. He worked under Julie Reiner at Monkey Bar in 2011 before moving to Prime Meats, where he built a following culminating in his Tiki Takeover series. In 2015, Garret joined the opening team of the Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley, injecting his passion for tiki in both programs. Currently, he helms his pop-up, Exotica, at Raines Law Room. In 2018, Garret joined the opening team at Existing Conditions by Dave Arnold and Don Lee.
Shannon Mustipher is a veteran of the hospitality industry, having developed beverage concepts for a number of clients. Shannon’s writing, cocktail recipes, and opinions have been featured in media such as the Los Angeles Times, GQ, Bon Appétit, Imbibe, and Punch.com. In 2019, she was named one of SevenFifty.com’s Drinks Innovators and Imbibe’s 75 People to Watch.
For the past ten years, Natasha Bermudez has forged a path through New York City’s bar industry. After Death & Co. veteran Eryn Reece took Bermudez under her wing, and her talent for the craft began to flourish, Bermudez helped Reece open Banzarbar. Bermudez has since moved from bartender at Llama Inn, which has been featured in the Michelin Bib guide, to head bartender at three-star New York Times “Critics’ Pick” Llama San, where she created an original drink menu alongside beverage director Lynnette Marrero.
“Tiki” Adam Kolesar is the proprietor of Orgeat Works Ltd., purveyor of syrups to New York’s and the nation’s top cocktail bars. It all started with a 2002 enrollment in a Dale DeGroff hands-on seminar in midcentury rum punches. This former straight-edge punk rocker began his quest to create an orgeat with real ingredients, possessing a profile complementary to fine rums, to aid in the search for that elusive Mai Tai.
I wrote the script and directed it. My name is Ben Schaffer.
Many drinks were expertly made that evening by Jungle Bird’s tip-top bartenders, Ali Brailey and Justin Ahdoot. Thanks must also go to Jungle Bird’s owner, Krissy Harris, and its events director, Marissa Cheshier, for making it all run smoothly.
Above all, this gathering would not have been possible without the critical mass of support from generous sponsors who came forward with the ingredients our bartenders requested: Appleton, Cointreau, Coruba, Denizen, Don Q, El Dorado, Pierre Ferrand, Giffard, Grand Marnier, Rhum J.M, Mount Gay, Orgeat Works, Plantation, Rum-Bar, Rum Fire, Skurnik Wines & Spirits, Wray and Nephew, and Zelda Magazine.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. — Ed.
The Role of Agricole
Ben: In the Mai Tai, are we moving away from Jamaican plus agricole?
Natasha: I didn’t know anything about agricole until I started doing cocktail bartending five or six years ago. Before that, I was mostly making Margaritas and Vodka Sodas. But I remember the first time I tasted it, somebody opened the bottle for me and I was like, “What—is this?” Because you can smell it from the other side of the room.
I learned cocktails backward. I learned a modern version of a lot of cocktails and then I learned the classics. So, my version of the Mai Tai has always been with an agricole rum in it. I think it says a lot about how we evolve in the culture in general. Like you guys have said before, it’s what we have available, and why not showcase what all these beautiful islands have to show us? I can see a Mai Tai with clairin, with Dominican and Puerto Rico rums, you know? Bring those out.
Ben: With clairin and Dominican rums together?
Natasha: That would be amazing. For once the whole island can get along! But, yes, my favorite way to drink a Mai Tai is with some accents of funk, and that’s with an agricole.
Ben: I feel like maybe “funk” is not the right word for what agricole contributes. It’s not the same as funky Jamaican, right?
Natasha: It’s not.
Ben: We used that word before because we didn’t have funky Jamaicans, but now we do. So is it time for agricole to step off and let Jamaica come back to the Mai Tai?
Shannon: Can’t we have it all?
Natasha: Exactly. Let’s have it all. I think it’s time for rum.
Adam: Highly controversial statement right there. I would venture to say, for a great many people in this room, their first introduction to agricole was via a Mai Tai. This is my personal experience. Think back, way, way back to the early 2000s, when Saint James was one of the few agricoles you could get. It’s a great, great agricole, but who knew about agricole? I was interested in a Mai Tai. I had to find it to make a good Mai Tai, because that’s what we did back in the day. It is a great vehicle for an introduction, and I do have an abiding fondness of agricole, and would miss it greatly. With that said, I could be convinced. But it is a sense memory, and what is more important to tropicals, to tiki, than the creation of sense memory as a form of escape?
Garret: If you read the old descriptions of the drink, it talks about good body, smoke. You can still do that with agricole. But then you can’t do both Rhum J.M V.O. and Rum Fire. You need to have contrast. The Mai Tai is about contrast, if you’re going to start blending rum. If you’re going to have something that’s high-note like a J.M V.O., or even a 110 Clément if you can get it, then you need some base to knock it back and round it out. Like an El Dorado 15. Or a heavier black style like Hamilton Black or Coruba.
The problem I have with many Mai Tais, where they’re going to go aromatic as fuck, the problem is that it becomes just one note. If you’re a bartender, sure, because we take shots of Wray and Nephew. That’s fine. But if you’re a guest in a bar, you may not be ready for that. Julie Reiner talks about this: you have to make drinks for the people. They may not be ready for that yet. You’ve got to work your way up to that. I think the best avenue for agricole, if you want to keep it, is that it can be the star, but it can’t be the only star.
Shannon: I’ve got to weigh in a little on that agricole thing. I’m very fond of the category. I recently got a six pack of various rums from Guadeloupe. Those rums are really intense, enjoyed on their own. Rhum Grand Arôme is from molasses. It’s not the same as rhum agricole. There was a little bit of confusion for a few decades around what Trader Vic was using to amend his Mai Tai. There was a clarification when Beachbum took a deeper look into those recipes, and we all had to reexamine the role that Martinique rum played in the Mai Tai. That being said, I consider everything to be fair game, if you consider what your guests are looking for. But you should be considering the fact that not every Martinique rum is an agricole.
Ben: Can we flip that around and ask, if distillers wanted to do it today, could they make a Wray and Nephew 17 type of rum? What are we missing?
Shannon: Well, I’m just going to throw it out there. I don’t know they could.
Ben: All they’ve got to do is buy a pot still and start fermenting differently.
Shannon: I wish they would. I think it’d be expensive, probably too expensive for a Mai Tai.
Garret: Denizen is not the only brand that is trying to do this. I was just at Lost Spirits in L.A. Apparently, they’re turning over lots of different research to try and come up with their own Mai Tai rum, which maybe they’ll make in forty-eight hours or, you know, whatever they do. It was interesting talking to their librarian because they’re looking into what wood was used. They can’t really find out what it was. Was it French Limousin oak, was it just wine barrels that happened to be down in Jamaica? That’s the holy grail for them, figuring out the actual aging process of the rum. I know that there are some rum brands that are more open to different aging. Then there are others that have to use American oak. But if we really want to open our minds about the Mai Tai, we may have to embrace alternate aging.
Ben: Aging is important. But my understanding is the biggest lack is actually the yeast. The fermentation was very different then. Those yeasts have passed from this world because they were not maintained. You’d really have to do some serious research about how to replicate the yeast.
Garret: They talked about that as well. Actually, they couldn’t go to Jamaica, but they went up to Boston, where the Great Molasses Flood was. They actually found some yeast samples.
Ben: What, still in the streets?
Garret: On the tour, they just thought I was some schmo looking at the Willy Wonka stuff. So, this is information that was very public. They said they’ve got a bunch of yeast samples. They even got a yeast sample off of a gravestone. Crazy? Yeah.
Ben: Why Boston?
Garret: Because they were saying that there was a similar yeast strain that the distillers in Boston were using. Go to Lost Spirits. It’s interesting.
Audience Member: I’m just curious to understand why the Wray and Nephew 17 ran out.
Ben: They drank it.
Garret: Do you drink Japanese whiskey? That’s your answer; they weren’t prepared.
Ben: There was no plan. They bought this rum and then they used it all. That was it. Stephen Remsberg, as some people will know, is the most esteemed rum collector on this earth. He has examples of the Wray and Nephew 15. He said it was good. He’s not a man of many words.
Ben: Shannon, you mentioned the elephant in the room, when the room is in Oahu, which is the so-called island-style Mai Tai. It’s basically a Mai Tai with more juice and a float of more stuff on top. Here’s another controversial view: It’s not a proper Mai Tai, but it’s not a terrible drink, necessarily. It’s just a different drink. Is there a place for this in our hearts, or not at all?
Shannon: I protest. Because I respect what Trader Vic did generally, but especially in regards to this cocktail. It has changed and evolved due to changes in the availability of rums X, Y, Z. But it’s a really simple point of departure or a way to get you started on tiki. I’m very protective, because this is the first tiki drink that I ventured with on my Glady’s menu. This is a drink that I can make an impression with. There are various perceptions, but can we just get back down to the roots and not play games with blue Curaçao and pineapple juice, and whatever this stuff is? Let’s get down to the essence. That’s my view.
Ben: Does anyone want to defend the island?
Garret: I’ll defend the island. Well, okay. So, why does it exist? Trader Vic did some consulting in Hawaii in 1971 for the Royal Hawaiian Surf Bar. He started using more local products in it. Also, remember, the rum doesn’t exist anymore. So he had to use less-than-awesome rums in it. The thing is, the island Mai Tai works when you’re not running it on premium. That’s why everyone makes it there. It doesn’t need expensive rums to be an agreeable drink.
The actual island Mai Tai spec that Vic does, it has lemon, lime, orgeat, pineapple, Curaçao, maybe some bitters. The point is it’s a lot of stuff to hide behind, especially if you get fresh pineapple. You can do that with a mellow Spanish style rum, whatever you want. There’s some light rum in there too. To me, it’s an agreeable drink. It’s fine. You may not be able to, as a bar operator, afford the rums that we’ve been talking about today. If you just need to make a good drink, make it with fresh juice, and it’ll be fine.
Adam: I was in Hawaii about five years ago. I made it my mission to taste every Mai Tai on the Big Island and Waikiki. I went through fourteen Mai Tais, all of which were of the ilk with the juices. Most were agreeable. I’m fortunate enough to have Orgeat Works in Julie Reiner’s spec at the Andaz in Waikiki. I was talking to their bartenders, and people would order a Mai Tai, the Andaz would hand them a beautifully crafted Mai Tai of 1944.
They all said, “No, I want a Mai Tai.” “This is a Mai Tai.” “No, I want the Mai Tai. I want the Hawaiian Mai Tai.” So, it shows you how the Mai Tai has been maligned over the years and, largely, it’s a state of mind more than an actual cocktail for ninety-five to ninety-nine percent of people in the continental United States. Hawaiian Punch, rum, and—as long as there’s a parasol—that’s a Mai Tai.
Ben: You’re saying these drinks tonight aren’t Mai Tais?
Adam: I don’t see any parasols.
Natasha: I have not been to Hawaii. But I do have Hawaiian friends. They’re native, grew up there, went to school there. They don’t drink Mai Tais in Hawaii. They don’t think the Mai Tai is a representation of their culture. Maybe that’s why you can’t get a good Mai Tai, because it’s not a drink that is meant to be drunk there. It’s meant to be drunk in California.
Another Mai Tai by Shannon Mustipher
Ben: We’re on drink number four, Shannon, which is your second Mai Tai. Not only do we have different people making Mai Tais, but people are making different Mai Tais themselves. So, here’s a different take on the Mai Tai from Shannon.
Shannon: Garret, it’s great that you brought up the point about different rums. This is called a Rogue Island, and it takes into account this idea that you can use various rums. This one involves Puerto Rican rum as well as Jamaican rum for a little bit of extra funk on there.
Maybe you can’t get to those two core rums that are closely related to the original Trader Vic thing, but you can spread it out depending on what’s available in your market. I know not everybody lives in L.A. or New York and can get whatever bottle they want. It’s a little more democratic, but I am hopeful that the yuzu gives it an exotic element to spice it up.
And the idea behind using yuzu is the whole idea of exotic drinks, that it doesn’t have a root in a particular location. Like I mentioned, in the 1930s, you were casting about looking for something that felt different or exciting. The whole world is fair game in that regard.
Garret: To add on to that, all these Mai Tais probably wouldn’t have almond in them if Vic wasn’t French. He took orgeat from his back bar. There’s no orgeat in the Caribbean—maybe in some French-speaking islands, but he wouldn’t have known that when he invented the drink. There’s definitely an art for bartenders to throw something into a story that maybe is a curveball, something that maybe shouldn’t belong there, and make it the heart of the story. It’s clear that in this drink, yuzu brightens everything up. Definitely replaces the Curaçao notes, and that’s really cool.
Rogue Island by Shannon Mustipher
1 oz Don Q Gran Añejo
¾ oz J.M Shrubb
½ oz Rum Fire
½ oz Orgeat Works Macadamia Nut Orgeat
½ oz yuzu purée
¼ oz lime juice
Shake with ice and strain into double rocks glass filled with crushed ice.
Ben: That also speaks to the idea that the Mai Tai is a classic cocktail. Because, of course, orgeat was an 1890s classic cocktail ingredient that got a new lease on life due to the Mai Tai. But speaking of orgeat, Mr. Orgeat, do you want to tell us about why you make so many different ones?
Adam: I’m a big believer in the right tool for the job. One of the greatest joys of standing over that cauldron of hot syrup and burning myself, and carrying fifty-pound bags of sugar, is collaborating with bartenders and getting ideas from them. “Hey, what if an orgeat could do this?” And many of my products are just that, they are a collaboration to solve a problem. The O.W.L. Mai Tai is a test bed of the influence of orgeat on a rum blend. Rums are rums, lime is lime, but what you use as an orgeat is going to have a significant effect on the outcome. As an example, Shannon, in her first drink, used the heavy duty orgeat. What the heck is that? This is an orgeat that Thomas Waugh and I came to create back when he was head man at Death & Co.
Ben: Back when he was heavy duty.
Adam: It was an answer to their problem of needing an orgeat that could be used in a stirred spirit cocktail. The heavy duty has gomme syrup and a real punch of fresh orange as well as the orange flower. So that solves that problem. Shannon’s first drink is more spirit forward, so you get the gum arabic mouth feel, all that.
Now, the toasted orgeat. What’s a way to get more flavor from the almond without dumping a bunch of almond essence in the sugar blend? Sugar wants to dominate everything. Way, way back in the day, I thought, what if we toasted that? Bring the oils out and make it more almond-forward, rather than a traditional orgeat which is going to be more marzipan.
Back in 2002, when I first started making Mai Tais, all we had was Torani. I thought, I can’t imagine that Trader Vic would dump Wray and Nephew 17 in concert with that stuff. That would be a travesty. It started me on a whole journey, thinking about how we can make an orgeat that might actually taste like an almond. And from there come the variants, the macadamia nut and falernum, which is a distant relative. But each tool for a specific job.
Also, I make my stuff clarified, so it has the versatility to work in a stirred cocktail. That was the goal very early on, not to have what I call the Mount Saint Helens sediment drain into the coupe.
Ben: Natasha, you have a reputation as someone who makes quinoa orgeat.
Natasha: We have two takes on orgeat. At Llama Inn, we have a toasted quinoa orgeat with almond milk. Again, it’s a representation of the restaurant and the culture that we are serving, which is Peruvian. It works beautifully for a lot of our cocktails. It’s a milky orgeat, so it doesn’t work with all kinds of cocktails that can be made with orgeat.
Then at Llama San, we have a white sesame toasted syrup. We are very esoteric, and we try to make people comfortable, so we say orgeat since a lot of our customers are already afraid of so many ingredients that we use. The white sesame orgeat works beautifully in a Mai Tai. I made one for a lady that never had a Mai Tai before. Orgeat plays a big part at the bar. A bar without orgeat is not a full bar.
Audience Member: Can I ask a question on that? Because most bars don’t have orgeat. So, when I’m in a dive bar and I want a Mai Tai—I’m a traveling person. I want Mai Tais. What do I do?
Ben: Bring it with you.
Shannon: Exactly. The Grey Poupon solution.
Ben: Wait a minute. I want to know what the Mai Tai was that you made for the lady that changed her life.
Natasha: I made equal parts of El Dorado 3 Year and Mount Gay Black Barrel and half an ounce of Japanese sugarcane rum, Cor Cor Green. With half an ounce of Cointreau, and then a little under three quarters of an ounce of our white sesame orgeat. One ounce of lime. Our syrups are quite heavy. We sous-vide them so they don’t lose that density.
I know that she had two of those. She never had a Mai Tai before, and she had two of those back to back. So, yeah, I’m probably putting it on the menu.
Root of the Tree
Ben: The Daiquiri is the O.G. rum cocktail. But here’s another controversial comment for the group. Is the Mai Tai a maximalist tropical sour, a Daiquiri with more stuff in it? Is that really what all tropical or tiki drinks are, or am I going to be yelled at by people on the panel?
Natasha: Yes, to all of it.
Garret: I mean, yeah, the answer is yes. But it’s more like which drink did the Mai Tai come from? Did it come from the Daiquiri? Did it come from the Planter’s Punch? Did it come from the Ti’ Punch? And everything else in between.
But most of Don the Beachcomber’s canon are Planter’s Punches. It’s eighty-five percent Planter’s. And this is where the difference between Vic and Donn is: Vic loved the Cuban style. He emulated Donn’s style every once in a while. There are one or two drinks where he gets close to imitating Donn. The Tortuga is one of them. But for the most part, he was looking towards those Cuban drinks. To me, it is very close to a Daiquiri. The needs of that drink are really interesting, because with tiki drinks, the thing you’re always fighting is water management.
I started to look at drinks more like this when working with Dave [Arnold] and Don [Lee] at Existing Conditions. How do you combat that glass of crushed ice? That really comes from making sure that your syrups are consistently the same strength of brix. Also being consistent on your dilution when shaking. And the thing that everyone forgets when reading Vic’s specs is that his syrups were crazy concentrated. They still are. If you buy the one off the shelf, it’s basically the same strength as a Demerara syrup you would get at any craft cocktail bar. He wrote an article for Gourmet magazine where he said if you want to make simple syrup, you’ve got to do three cups of sugar, one cup of water. That’s crazy sweet. But you only use a little bit of it. So that really, really sweet concentration went a long way and it minimized the water.
It’s easy to do sweet, sour, bitter, strong, but when you have this fistful of crushed ice, you can’t play by the same rules as the Daiquiri, you have to concentrate things. You have to make things more apparent in some areas and dial things down in others. That’s the challenge of the Mai Tai.
Shannon: I agree it is important to maintain the distinction between a Daiquiri and a Mai Tai, because they are from very different places. The Daiquiri is related to the Daisy, to the sour, a root family of cocktails that doesn’t necessarily relate to tropical cocktails as we think of them now. But we’ve taken that as a base due to the relationship to El Floridita. All that being said, in order to do each branch justice, I think we need to keep them separate. The Gimlet, the Sidecar, the Last Word—they deserve their own space. The Mai Tai is an expansion of that. You add syrups, you add crushed ice, you make it longer, maybe a little more sophisticated.
Natasha: I’m having an epiphany right now. All these drinks, the two things they have in common are the citrus and the orange liqueur. Back to utilizing what we had available then, was it the chicken or the egg first? I don’t know. I think the Mai Tai is a rum Margarita, but it could be as simple as a Daiquiri, a Daisy. It’s a hard question. My answer to that is we utilize what our colonizers brought to our land.
Adam: When I think of the Mai Tai, I think about what differentiates it from the root of the tree, the Daiquiri tree. It’s that the Mai Tai is about the sum of its parts. And those parts can be expressed in many directions, but it’s just a very different thing, alluding to what Shannon was saying, than a Daiquiri, which is all about its intriguing simplicity versus the sum of its parts. It’s much more the expression of the bartender’s trade. I always look at a Daiquiri as a thing where your number one job is don’t fuck it up. That’s it.
Shannon: To your point, when I go into a bar, I have what is called the Daiquiri test. Can you put three things together and do it okay? Do you guys have the right juice, execution? With a Mai Tai, you’re going beyond a litmus test, and you feel like, “Well, how do you interpret a drink that has been so ambiguous and debated over the years?” It’s like, “What is your philosophy?” Not only testing your technique and your quality, but what is your philosophy? So now we’re going deep.
A Mai Tai by “Tiki” Adam Kolesar
Ben: We have Adam’s Mai Tai in front of us.
Adam: This is a drink that launched a company. We were just discussing the bartender’s craft. I tend to like my Mai Tai a bit dryer. Garret talked earlier about the orthodox, hardcore, real 1944 Trader Vic’s Mai Tai where they added the quarter ounce of rock candy syrup. I thought it seemed really fussy. I built a more robust orgeat to answer that question. I’m not measuring an inaccurate quarter ounce—especially in service, that’s just crazy, right?
The discovery I made in creating this Mai Tai as a test bed for the T’Orgeat—which is a toasted orgeat, not necessarily traditional, as opposed to a blanched almond recipe—I started off using Senior Curaçao. That was the best Curaçao of its day, but still not quite dry enough. We ended up with Ferrand Dry Curaçao. Perfect.
But it taught me a lot about the interaction of almond and rum and how it interplays with the acid and the sweet of that beautiful Curaçao and lime. And the trilogy, if you will, of lime, Curaçao, and orgeat. The blanched doesn’t work in this drink, but what the blanched is really good at, and what it taught me, is the funkier and more robust the rum, the better the blanched works in a Mai Tai.
I would suggest a lot of Mai Tais are informed by the orgeat that’s going to go in them, because it’s not universal. If you really want to fine-tune your Mai Tai, you figure out the orgeat that works best. That’s why a lot of folks house-make the orgeat, because they’re attenuating that profile based on that blend of sugar, almond, orange flower water, rosewater.
Audience Member: Is it the rum that informs the Mai Tai, or do you build from the orgeat?
Adam: It’s a great question. You could conceive of a beautiful blend of rums and totally jack up your Mai Tai with a wrong orgeat. Orgeat determines the destiny of that Mai Tai. When I look at a menu and I see a house-made orgeat, I know they’ve tweaked and worked on what they want their Mai Tai to taste like. Okay, sometimes it goes wrong.
O.W.L. Mai Tai by “Tiki” Adam Kolesar
1 oz Rum-Bar Gold
½ oz Rhum J.M VSOP
½ oz El Dorado 12 Year
½ oz Ferrand Dry Curaçao
½ oz Orgeat Works T’Orgeat
1 oz lime juice
Blend all ingredients except the J.M and El Dorado. Add J.M and El Dorado to a glass with crushed ice. Add the blended mixture on top. Garnish with mint.
A Mai Tai by Garret Richard
Ben: Garret, your drink is the finale tonight, a Mai Tai version you’ve made famous at your Exotica evenings. It’s our only drink tonight with not just a split-base rum, but also split orange liqueur.
Garret: At one time I felt that the Mai Tai was just based on what you have, what rums are in your bar, and you’ve just got to work with it, right? And recently, I’m much more interested in putting a stamp on a classic, taking some bravery to say, “This is my version.” But the recipe that I came up with for my Mai Tai started with us working a bachelor party. It was for Christina Tosi’s husband, Will Guidara. Kevin Denton put the party together, and it was at Slowly Shirley in the afternoon. All these bachelors came in with five-dollar Hawaiian shirts, and they wanted Mai Tais, and two other drinks. We did a Suffering Bastard and one other thing that I can’t remember.
The first iteration of this Mai Tai that you’re drinking came from that party, which I worked on with Jim Kearns. We wanted Denizen as the base, but then, as I talked about earlier in this panel, we needed the contrast. Denizen was high aromatics, we needed something fatter. Originally, it was a different rum that informed the base of that. Originally, we were using two different Curaçaos and two of Adam’s syrups, the Toasted Orgeat and the Latitude 29 Orgeat. And for myself, I found I liked the Latitude 29 better. I liked the blanched almonds, the more floral almond character, because I thought it provided more contrast. I also felt that it was a little bit more almond-oily. That was the Slowly Shirley Mai Tai for a while. We definitely had some regulars that came in for that drink. It’s a great drink.
I left Slowly Shirley and worked at ZZ’s for a while. I made the Thomas Waugh/Brian Miller Mai Tai which was on the menu there, called the Almond. It was what you would expect a twenty-dollar Mai Tai to be. Four premium rums, very expensive liqueurs.
But with that Mai Tai, I didn’t know if everyone was getting the four expensive rums. It was where I started to listen to myself. I thought this drink wants to be more democratic. It wants to be more like a Tommy’s-style Margarita, but for rum. I missed the spec that Jim and I did.
When I brought the Exotica pop-up back, I had to rethink the Mai Tai. There were a couple different versions we went through on a couple different menus. Eventually, I sat down with the team and said, “We’re not doing anything until we figure out what it is.” I went back to the one Jim and I worked on together. I thought, “This is a fine drink, but I know more now. Let’s apply that knowledge.” The biggest thing that I had learned was that original Wray and Nephew rum was ninety-seven proof.
You’re looking at two and a quarter ounces of booze, two and a half, maybe. And then the half of Curaçao. A total of three ounces of booze if everything’s forty to forty-five percent. All right, how do we break up the three ounces? I wanted to keep the Denizen. But why don’t we go back to Trader Vic’s first move, which was to throw Coruba in there? Coruba is heavy, it’s got body. Everyone says it’s sweet, but it’s not. It’s just molasses. It’s a light rum that has a ton of molasses. And that’s what the Denizen is missing. It needs that extra body. It sort of artificially ages it.
We cut that two and a quarter to one and a half ounces Denizen, three quarter Coruba. Towards the end of my tenure at ZZ’s, once Brian and Thomas were gone, I was sort of able to do what I wanted. I started messing around with orange liqueurs. This was something I did with Jim, too. But at ZZ’s we had Grand Marnier Cuvée du Centenaire, the hundred-year anniversary version, and Clément Creole Shrubb. When I wanted to do it for Exotica, I thought there’s actually something to be said about having the same contrast in the orange liqueurs. A heavy, aromatic thing like Grand Marnier with something super light, islandy, and fruity, like a shrub. And in this case, in the Mai Tai that you’re drinking, it’s Rhum J.M Shrubb, but also Clément has these fruity, fruity notes.
The shaking of it came from watching the people at Tommy’s. The Tommy’s Margarita shake is very thin hotel ice, like the kind you get at a Subway sandwich shop, that’s shaken in a blender pitcher and then dumped in. The dilution on that is great because it’s halfway between crushed and cubed iced. I modified that a little bit to work within the craft cocktail space. For every Mai Tai that we make, we shake with four Kold-Draft cubes, then we dump the cubes on the top with crushed ice. That emulates that very specific slow shake that everyone who works for Trader Vic’s knows how to do. I thought that was a moving target that I could not teach people. I can teach flash blending, I can do frozen drinks, but then the crazy gentle rocking—the cliff for failure on that was significant. So, the way this Mai Tai came about, technique-wise, was looking at the Tommy’s ice.
The final part is the lime wedge on the bottom of your glass. That’s what Trader Vic’s does now. Everybody does the shell, but if you watch a Trader Vic’s bartender, they have a very specific squeezer that squeezes one little wedge, which they put in the jigger and they top up with fresh lime, and then they put that wedge aside. They shake the drink, they dump it, then they put the wedge back in. The wedge on top is okay, but the wedge on the bottom coats the whole ice with lime oil. The nice thing about doing it with a fresh wedge is, if you have a bunch of shells, they get nasty, they get oily, and because you juiced them at two p.m., they’re not going to be good by the time you make the drink at eight. But having a fresh-cut wedge, boom, you’re ready to go. So that’s the thought process behind it.
Oh, wait, one more part: I work at Existing Conditions, where ninety percent of drinks have salt in them. On a basic level, it’s an almond drink, and almonds need salt, right? Salt pops almonds. The heavier answer is that salt helps you perceive the layers of sweet and sour. You don’t have to do the daisy chain that a lot of young bartenders do of saying, “Well, I can’t taste the sweetener I worked on. I need to do more acid. Oh no, I need to do a little more of the sweetener. Now more acid.” It becomes an acid/sugar bomb. Saline really helps you distinguish those layers on your tongue and blocks the bitterness of the fresh lime. It allows you to see everything in the drink.
Natasha: I completely agree. It’s like cooking. I am a big fan of adding saline to my drinks. When you cook, when you want to make the perfect tomato sauce, what do you do? You have tomatoes. You add sugar and you add salt, right? Your tomatoes sometimes are sweet, sometimes too high in acid. You want salt and sugar so they complement each other.
Going back to the Daiquiri, one of my favorite ways to make Daiquiris is with half an ounce of Paranubes, because it’s super green, but then you add that saline, with two dashes of saline it completely becomes another drink. It really makes all the other things pop out, and doesn’t let that half an ounce of that rum to take over the whole drink.
Garret: We mentioned a name earlier: Stephen Remsberg, rum collector. With Adam and Ben, I was lucky enough to taste through some bottles at his house. And that informed some of the decisions about that Mai Tai. Rums from the ’60s—I had a Lemon Hart Jamaican 15, I had a couple other Jamaicans from back then—they had funkiness, but they had a lot of molasses body, which does not exist from distilleries right now, for whatever reason. But I would implore you, if you’re doing Mai Tai specs at home, to try to find whatever will give you that molasses-y body, whether that’s a rum or something else.
That’s what I think is missing now in the modern space. I hope that some distillers go and create modern black rums. A modern black premium rum? I can’t name one. There are some that say they are, but they’re more in the funky Jamaican space. One that has actual yeast from Jamaica, has body, and molasses from Jamaica—that does not exist right now. And that’s something I’d like to fight for, for the Mai Tai.
Shannon: I want to echo your sentiment. The only way to get this done is to drink as much rum as possible.
Mai Tai by Garret Richard
1 ½ oz Denizen Merchant’s Reserve
¾ oz Coruba Dark
½ oz J.M Shrubb
½ oz Grand Marnier
¾ oz Orgeat Works Latitude 29 Orgeat
1 oz lime juice
5 drops saline
Shake with 4 large ice cubes. Dump mixture into double rocks glass with lime shell at the bottom. Top with crushed ice. Garnish with mint, orchid, and a lime twist.