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. Use up leftovers with a Japanese Cocktail, Trinidad Sour, or Mojito Mocktail.

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


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

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 ½ ounces (3 tablespoons) aged rum
  • ½ ounce (1 tablespoon) orange liqueur: Curaçao, Cointreau or Grand Marnier
  • ¾ ounce (1 ½ tablespoons) lime juice
  • 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) orgeat syrup
  • ½ 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
  • Diet: Vegan

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

About the authors

Sonja & Alex

Meet Sonja and Alex Overhiser: Husband and wife. Expert home cooks. Authors of recipes you'll want to make again and again.

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32 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. Love your dedication to “Original Recipes”. Do you by chance have the original recipe for Brass Monkey? Used to be able to get at liqueur stores but that ended in the 1980’s. It was sold in premixed bottle, had Bacardi 151 Rum, vodka, tropical juices. What the bar guide mixology has as recipe is Not anything like the original. It’s like expecting a full flavored beer and getting a near-beer instead! Very disappointing. I believe Brass Monkey was bottled in Cuba or Jamaica, definitely a Caribbean source.

  3. This is my favorite go-to recipe, without a doubt… but I might suggest, at the very end, you don’t strain the drink… tiki drinks go into the glass with the ice they got mixed with… add more as needed!

    1. I agree. Purists will say it oversweetens maybe, but I think many will prefer it this way. I think you could also try fresh squeezed navel orange juice.

  4. So your method of making mai tai is incorrect. You want to know how I know It’s because I met and became friends with one of the 11 soldiers that were stranded on one of the Midway Islands during world war II with nothing but one of the first half semis that was refrigerated generator and gas had plenty of that and that half semi I was filled with fresh fruit all liquors and it was going to be for MacArthur and headquarters as a small bar setup so these soldiers were stranded on this island for 2 weeks and all of them were cooks and bartenders so they had nothing better to do than eat get rested and eventually they started inventing drinks One of them was the Mai Tai and I met this bartender when he was in his ’90s during the ’90s at a restaurant in San Diego called the Bali hai his name was Fernando and when he made my tie not only did one of them get you thoroughly wasted lol but it was delicious but it was packing as well So finally before he retired I asked him hey Fernando how do you make this my tie cuz I noticed you put your back to us every time you do your wizardry with this drink and he wrote it on a napkin for me and so yeah nice try you’re close but it’s still wrong You’re missing a key elemental step in preparation and one major ingredient so yeah which is why I gave your recipe rating a two

    1. would throw rotten tomatoes if i could 🍅🍅🍅, at this point make your own blog post except wait— you don’t even want to explain what the missing parts are.

      as for the recipe, makes a nice drink if a bit too sweet for my tastes.

    2. No chance the old vet might have been feeding you one of his many war stories? You know, beyond “How I won the war.”

      Victor J. Bergeron is generally credited as the creator of the Mai Tai in his Trader Vic’s restaurant in Oakland, CA in 1944.

  5. I thought your recipe was excellent. I added more lime juice than listed by accident, but is turned out fine. The flavors are amazing and I felt like I was back on Maui enjoying happy hour. It sure packs a punch! I will definitely make this again. Thanks!

  6. My twist is using spiced rum instead of aged. I rub thr inside of glas with passion fruit (eases the sweetness for me) and 1/2 ounce of ovenproof over the pineapple/cherry garnish. Which can be lit for effect. Still no juice…yeay

  7. Thanks Sonja and Alex for doing the hard work researching this great recipe. You’re right. I thought a Mai Tai was a sweet overly fruity drink, but your recipe goes back to the origins that I find so much better. Greatly appreciate all the details too!

  8. This isn’t quite the original version, but it’s closer than most. The biggest difference is your recipe calls for significantly more orgeat than the true one.

  9. I am obsessed with this Mai Tai! My husband and I went to Maui two months ago and we fell in love with these. The orgeat and real luxardo maraschino cherries make these so good! I sometimes add just a touch of lacroix if it is a bit sweet. 5 stars!
    One question, what is the nutritional value on this recipe for 1? Thanks!

    1. So glad you enjoyed! Our nutrition analyzer doesn’t do great with cocktails, but it would be ~250 calories.

  10. If you don’t have orgeat you can use some frangelico. To ease back on the sweetness I use finely crushed ice and shake until dissolved. Pour over ice cubes for ease of drinking. And finally I use 15mm split of demerara sugar syrup and orgeat to add more complexity..

  11. Thank you, thank you and thank you. I went to Hawaii for my honeymoon in 1986 and fell in love with this cocktail. I have been trying to recreate it ever since. This is the drink I remember. Did I say thank you, if not, thank you!

  12. Incredible drink. Not to sweet like they are so often. I had to buy almost $95.00 worth of rum but this recipe is worth it

  13. Wow,wow,wow!
    You guys hit this one on the head.
    Absolutely fantastic recipe. The moment I tasted this, the memories of when I first had this came back to me.
    Thanks so much for making my week!
    Ps, I didn’t change a thing, just stuck with your instructions.

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