June 30th is National Mai Tai Day, a drink that is attributed by most experts to Victor J. Bergeron, a.k.a. Trader Vic (1902-1984).
Bergeron was the founder of the Trader Vic’s restaurant chain that was so popular in the 1950s and 1960s, which grew to some 30 Trader Vic restaurants worldwide, plus a wholesale food products business.
Trader Vic and his “amicable rival,” Don The Beachcomber, introduced mainland America to “tiki” drinks: plenty of rum and sweet mixers, garnished with baby orchids and perhaps a mini Japanese paper umbrella.
Bergeron, son of a San Francisco grocer, entered the restaurant business at age 32 in 1934—the year following the end of Prohibition. He used $300 of his own money and $800 borrowed from an aunt to open Hinky Dink’s, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and beer joint in Oakland.
He began inventing and improving his vision of South Seas food—largely, the Cantonese cooking he had come across there.
To go with the food, he invented the exotic, rum-based drinks with catchy names, such as Doctor Funk of Tahiti, Mai Tai, Missionary’s Revenge, Queen’s Park Swizzle, Scorpion and Sufferin’ Bastard, among others.
Trader Vic’s Is Born
In 1937, Hinky Dink’s morphed into an upscale South Pacific theme restaurant with menu and Polynesian decor, intended to provide “complete escape and relaxation.” [source]
Theme-oriented restaurants had been established a few years before then (the history of theme restaurants), based on concepts from hot rods to fishing villages. Don The Beachcomber, and then Vic Bergeron, pioneered the Polynesian theme restaurant.
THE ORIGIN OF TIKI DRINKS
Polynesian restaurants were known for their “tiki drinks,” so-called because the restaurants decorated with tiki statues, along with other theme items such as South Seas-style wood surfboards, fake palm trees and fish-shaped lights floating above, “trapped” in fishing nets.
The exotic drinks added excitement to the overall category of rum drinks, which was focused on the Daiquiri, Dark and Stormy, Mojito, and Rum and Coke/Cuba Libre (the Hurricane, Piña Colada and others had not yet seen the light of day).
Others included Navy Grog, invented by Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood in 1944; Planter’s Punch, invented in Jamaica by 1878); Rum Runner, created in the 1950s at the Holiday Isle Tiki Bar in Islamorada, Florida; Tahitian Rum Punch, invented by Don The Beachcomber; and the Zombie, invented by Don the Beachcomber and popularized at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Tiki-inspired ceramic glasses, mugs and drink bowls were designed to fan the flames, as it were. Some bowls even had a center well into which Sterno could be poured for flaming drinks. Other drinks were flamed with a tablespoon of high proof rum, added to the surface.
THE INVENTION OF THE MAI TAI
The Mai Tai (pronounced my tie), was created in 1944 by Trader Vic. He tested the recipe on two friends from Tahiti, one of whom exclaimed “Maita’i roa a’e”, or “out of this world—the best” in Tahitian. Bergeron shortened that to Mai Tai—“the best.”
Trader Vic’s recipe is the one that endured, combining dark and light rums, lime juice, orange curaçao, orgeat syrup (almond-flavored simple syrup) and regular simple syrup. The original had a simple garnish (a mint spring) or none at all.
There is another drink called Mai Tai Swizzle, from Don the Beachcomber. It was invented in 1933, but it seems to have disappeared from his menu sometime before 1937 [source]. But the recipe was quite different, augmenting the rum with grapefruit juice, lime juice, Pernod and bitters (here’s the recipe).
 A Mai Tai based on the original recipe—except for the orchid, a later addition (photo courtesy The Mercury | Atlanta; here’s the recipe).
 A Mai Tai based on the original recipe—except for the flowers (photo courtesy Turntable Kitchen).
 A modern Mai Tai, looking like a Tequila Sunset—not what Trader Vic created (photo courtesy Real Restaurant Recipes).
Over the years, Trader Vic’s Mai Tai has been further “developed” by bartenders, into a fruitier and more colorful drink.
As with every drink called Margarita or Martini—when in fact the ingredients stray far from those recipes—these recipes “borrow” the Mai Tai name but give you a very different rum drink, with pineapple juice, orange juice and grenadine.
Why? Because fruity drinks are downed more quickly, leading to another and another (i.e., more drinks sold). To add to the colorful drink, a baby orchid and/or miniature Japanese umbrella appeared as garnish; or at least, a pineapple slice, orange slice and/or maraschino cherry.
As one article noted, “The flavor is often dominated by fruit and that helps hide the heavy taste of alcohol. This is perfect for drinkers who prefer less alcohol flavor….They end up tasting so good that a person can almost forget how potent they really are.” [source]
The Original Mai Tai Recipe
Bergeron invented the Mai Tai to showcase a favorite aged rum—the 17-year-old J. Wray and Nephew Ltd. Jamaican rum, golden and medium-bodied (the brand is now owned by Campari America).
He also used rock candy syrup, which is sweeter and thicker than regular simple syrup: a 2 parts sugar and 1 part water instead of a 1:1 ratio (recipe).
However, the Mai Tai was such a smash hit that “A couple of years after the cocktail’s invention, the world ran out of the 17-year-old rum…so [Bergeron substituted] a 15-year-old J. Wray and Nephew.” [source]
But once that, too, dwindled in supply, Bergeron created a blend of Jamaican rum and aged molasses-based Martinique rum to emulate the Wray and Nephew rum.