Mai Tai

Here’s how to make the original Mai Tai recipe! Gather the ingredients for this tropical rum drink that’s as complex as it is fruity.

Mai tai

The Mai Tai might sound like a fruity resort drink from the 1990’s, but it’s anything but! No, this drink is a classic cocktail from the 1940’s that’s been (cough) ruined by saccharine sweet versions intended for tourists. How to make a real Mai Tai? Well, this rum cocktail is breathtakingly complex, featuring rum, orange liqueur, and fancy almond syrup. It’s just sweet enough, with nutty and vanilla notes against the sharp citrus. Float a little dark rum on top, and you get to the core of a Mai Tai: it’s sophisticated, nuanced, and might we say…extraordinarily special. Here’s how to make this classic!

What’s a Mai Tai?

Full disclosure: we weren’t fans of what we thought was a mai tai…until we tasted the classic version! The Mai Taic cocktail in its original form makes sense. It’s tropical, nutty, boozy and zingy: and it’s nothing like the adult fruit juice you might be expecting. (I ordered a Mai tai at a bar recently and it tasted like a Hawaiian punch juice box. No thank you!)

Of course, there are multiple personalities who try to take claim for this classic cocktail. The most widely accepted story is that it was invented in 1944 at Trader Vic’s restaurant in Oakland, California. It became very popular in the 1950’s and 60’s, especially at tiki restaurants. (And since Tiki culture is built on appropriation, we won’t exalt the virtues of that phenomenon!)

Mai Tai ingredients

What’s in the original Mai Tai? Contrary to what you might think, there’s no pineapple juice! There’s actually no fruit juice at all, other than lime juice. The classic Mai Tai cocktail is on the list of International Bartender Association’s IBA official cocktails, meaning that it has an “official” definition. The ingredients in a Mai Tai drink are:

  • Aged rum (also called golden, amber or anejo)
  • Orange liqueur: either curaçao, Cointreau or Grand Marnier
  • Lime juice
  • Orgeat syrup
  • Dark rum

As a note, the classic Mai Tai ingredients also often include simple syrup. We prefer it with only orgeat syrup to capitalize on its special flavor to the fullest. Speaking of…

Mai tai ingredients

What is orgeat syrup? Is there a substitute?

Alex and I have ordered cocktails with orgeat syrup at bars and been mystified at this ingredient. What is it? Do you have to have it in a Mai Tai? Here’s a breakdown:

  • Orgeat syrup is a non-alcoholic almond syrup used for sweetening cocktails. It has a distinctive nutty flavor with a hint of citrus that’s hard to replicate.
  • How do you pronounce orgeat? Say Or-ZHAAT in your best French accent, where the “ZH” is like the J in the name Jacque.
  • What is a substitute for orgeat syrup? There is no substitute for the unique nutty citrus flavor. A Mai Tai without orgeat syrup just doesn’t work. It’s a tasty drink: just not a real Mai Tai.
  • How much does orgeat syrup cost? You can grab a bottle for about $10. It’s easy to find online: here’s the orgeat syrup we have.

Orange liqueur: Grand Marnier vs Curaçao

A Mai Tai recipe traditionally uses orange curaçao, but it can be hard to find. Here are a few notes on what else to use as a substitute:

  • Grand Marnier is your best bet. Grand Marnier is the highest end orange liqueur, and brings nuanced, sophisticated flavor. We had a bottle (because we like Grand Marnier cocktails), so we used it here.
  • Cointreau also works. Got a bottle for making margaritas or other Cointreau drinks? You can use it here too. The flavor is a little less nuanced, but it still works!
Aged rum

Two types of rum for the best flavor

Many Mai Tai recipes use two types of rum mixed into the drink. Our version takes it a step further and floats the dark rum on top! It makes for a showy presentation and it’s become a tradition that some people like in their version of this drink. Here’s a bit more about the two types of rum you’ll need:

  • Aged rum: This type of rum is also referred to as golden rum, amber rum, or añejo rum (meaning “aged”). Aging gives it a complex flavor, more like a Cognac. It has undertones of vanilla, coconut, almond, citrus, or caramel. The aged rum that we used here was Brugal Añejo Rum.
  • Dark rum: Also known as black rum, dark rum has a dark color and a rich flavor that’s smoky and sweet.

What other cocktails can you use these rums for? Use aged rum in an El Presidente or Pineapple Rum Cocktail, and dark rum in a Dark and Stormy or Jungle Bird.

Mai Tai recipe | Mai tai cocktail

How to make a Mai Tai

So you’ve got your orgeat syrup, stocked up on golden and dark rum, and figured our your orange liqueur. Now it’s time to make a Mai Tai cocktail! This is the easy part: shake it up, then garnish. That’s all there is too it!

  • Shake in a cocktail shaker. Place all ingredients except the dark rum in a cocktail shaker, add ice, and shake. (Don’t have one? Use a mason jar!)
  • Float the dark rum. Pour the dark rum on top of the drink, and it will settle on in a single layer.
  • Strain into a glass and garnish. Strain the drink into a lowball glass. The traditional garnish is fresh mint and a lime wedge. Many Mai Tai drinks also have pineapple and cocktail cherries as a garnish, so we added that here too: just for kicks!

When to serve a Mai Tai

The Mai Tai drink is a festive and fun cocktail, great for parties or impressing guests! It’s great as a:

  • Summer drink
  • Signature drink
  • Cocktail hour drink
  • Party drink
  • Happy hour drink
  • Dinner party drink
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Mai tai

The Original Mai Tai


1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (12 votes, average: 4.33 out of 5)

  • Author: Sonja Overhiser
  • Prep Time: 5 minutes
  • Cook Time: 0 minutes
  • Total Time: 5 minutes
  • Yield: 1 drink 1x
  • Diet: Vegan

Description

Here’s how to make the original Mai Tai recipe! Gather the ingredients for this tropical rum drink that’s as complex as it is fruity.


Ingredients

Scale
  • 1 1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons) aged rum
  • 1/2 ounce (1 tablespoon) orange liqueur: Curaçao, Cointreau or Grand Marnier
  • 3/4 ounce (1 1/2 tablespoons) lime juice
  • 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) orgeat syrup
  • 1/2 ounce (1 tablespoon) dark rum
  • For the garnish: Fresh mint, cocktail cherry, pineapple slice, lime wedge

Instructions

  1. Place the aged rum, orange liqueur, lime juice, and orgeat syrup in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake until cold.
  2. Strain the drink into an ice-filled glass. Top with the dark rum. Garnish with fresh mint, a lime wedge, cocktail cherry and pineapple slice. 
  • Category: Drink
  • Method: Shaken
  • Cuisine: Cocktails

Keywords: Mai Tai, Mai Tai Recipe, Mai Tai Ingredients, Mai Tai Drink, Mai Tai Cocktail

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About the Authors

Sonja Overhiser

Cookbook Author and writer

Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.

Alex Overhiser

Cookbook Author and photographer

Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.

2 Comments

  • Reply
    Thatch
    March 23, 2021 at 10:48 pm

    This is a really good recipe. I wanted to rate it but I can’t find the option to do that on this page? Let me know if I’m missing something.

    Anyway, it’s a great drink, but mine came out pretty sweet, although that could be the ingredients I’m using, including a homemade orgeat syrup, etc. if yours also comes out sweet, up the like content to a full ounce per drink, and your cocktail will have a bit more bite!

    Overall, an excellent recipe.

    • Reply
      Alex Overhiser
      March 24, 2021 at 9:56 am

      So glad you enjoyed it!

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