Mai Tai Throwdown

maitaihut
OK, to paraphrase Bill Cosby, I told you the last two stories to tell you this one.
If there is one subject guaranteed to excite the juices and light the flaming garnishes of Tiki-philes round the world, it is this:
Who invented the Mai Tai, Trader Vic or Don the Beachcomber?
In my previous posts, outlining the lives of Don and Vic, I deliberately avoided much in the way of comparisons, saving that for here. Let’s first look at a few things about the two, aside from the Mai Tai. Don was first, period, in the tropical-polynesian feel restaurant with caribbean inspired cocktails. Vic undoubtedly knew of Don’s LA operation before he took off for New Orleans and points south to absorb the rum knowledge he wanted to built his own Tiki empire. I think that it’s telling that Vic did not try to imitate Don, and especially his drinks, directly. The Trader set out to assemble the same tool kit that Don had, then built his own design from the same starting point.
Without both of their work and inspiration, Tiki would never have been the force it was, or perhaps a force at all. And I suspect that both men knew it damn well. Both were rivals, perhaps intense rivals, but they knew they needed each other. They were fierce, even nasty and litigious on occasion, toward lesser Tiki creatures, but left each other strictly alone, as far as I can see. But I doubt they much liked each other either. Here are the definitive quotes from each man about the other (Both, not remotely coincidentally, relate to the paternity of the Mai Tai:

donThere continues to be controversy over who originally came up with the Mai Tai. It has never bothered me that Vic Bergeron took credit, and I have never held a grudge. The plain fact is, there can be no truer form of flattery than when other people claim credit for your concepts and ideas and use them for their own benefit.
-Don the Beachcomber

20060916dThat is one stunning load of horse manure, Don!

Anybody who says I didn’t create the Mai Tai is a dirty rotten stinker.
-Trader Vic

Gee Vic, who ya talking about?

Don claims to have first served his Mai Tai in 1933, an assertion that is repeated as fact by his partisans, and spoken with skepticism by Vic’s gang. No one seems to have any historical evidence of this. Not a menu, a celebrity diary entry, nothing. I suspect that if there was, it would always be front and center in the debate. Vic states he invented it in 1944. That’s a pretty big discrepancy.
We should remember that a well made Mai Tai is the best Tiki drink that ever was poured. Period. Of that, partisans on both sides emphatically agree. Or at least I think so, so that makes it fact.
In the late thirties, these men were the hippest things going in California’s two great cities, and shared a huge percentage of their clienteles. If Don had this killer libation in his bag of tricks and Vic didn’t, why is this not common knowledge, rather than uncommon controversy? Of course, we who live today in the age of the Internet and mass media are a little out of touch with how slowly and imperfectly information used to travel.
Also, while Don was brilliant and creative, perhaps beyond Vic’s powers, he lacked the Trader’s ability to institutionalize his work, and spread it sustainably beyond his own personal reach. I’ll repeat my assertion from last post that Don was Francis Drake, but Vic was Henry Ford. Don may well have served the magnificent Mai Tai for years before Vic, but failed to set it in people’s minds beyond his reach. Give Vic a superweapon like the Mai Tai, and he would cement it in the minds of folks around the world.
Also, there is the famous conversation. Syndicated columnist Jim Bishop wrote a letter to Honolulu columnist Don Chapman in 1989, in which he claims that he was part of a conversation at Trader Vic’s in San Francisco in which the Trader appears to have admitted that Don invented the Mai Tai. I am skeptical. In the 1970s, this would have been a huge story, and Bishop didn’t write about it then? Or, if we go with the idea that he waited until both men had died, it would still have been a story of some magnitude in 1989 at the very nadir of Tiki. Why would one journalist give it to another? Also, these were old frenemies, in their cups. If the conversation did take place as remembered, it is hardly conclusive. Still, it’s a powerful piece of evidence, if you trust it.
So, based on talent, personality, and historical evidence (or lack thereof), we don’t have a convincing argument either way. Let’s examine another feature of the competition between Vic and Don, and their lesser rivals: Secrecy.
If Don Beach and Vic Bergeron had been entrusted with national security, the Russians would have had to come up with The Bomb on their own. These guys (especially Don) guarded their recipes like virgin daughters. We do not have absolute certainty over what was in the original Mai Tai, whomever made it, or when the Mai Tai recipe we think of as definitive actually started being offered under the name Mai Tai. This should muddy the waters, but in fact this is the key to answering who is the father of the Mai Tai.
Here is what Don’s wife calls his original Mai Tai recipe, in Hawaii Tropical Rum Drinks & Cuisine by Don the Beachcomber:

DON THE BEACHCOMBER’S MAI TAI

  • 2 ounces of water
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons of fresh lime juice
  • 1 ounce of fresh grapefruit juice
  • 1 ounce of sugar syrup
  • 1 ounce of dark rum
  • 1-1/2 ounce of golden rum
  • 1/2 ounce of Cointreau or Triple Sec
  • 1/2 tablespoon of Falernum syrup
  • 2 dashes of Angostura bitters
  • 1 dash of Pernod

Shake all ingredients together with ice and strain into a tall highball glass filled with crushed ice. Garnish with fresh fruit and serve with straw.

And here is Trader Vic’s recipe for the very first Mai Tai ever made, as found in Trader Vic’s Tiki Party! and first read by me on Rumdood’s site:

TRADER VIC’S MAI TAI

  • 2 oz Wray & Nephew 17 Year Old Rum
  • .5 oz orgeat
  • .5 oz orange curacao
  • .25 oz simple syrup
  • Juice of one lime (approx. .75 oz lime juice)

Mix all ingredients and shake with ice. Strain into a glass over crushed ice. Garnish with lime shell and a sprig of mint.

Note several differences: First, the recipes are very different; not the same cocktail at all, really. Don’s is general, Vic’s is specific, about brands and the story of its creation. Don probably didn’t even write it down when he first made it, which is why it’s so general. In short, it has the feel of just another cocktail Don invented.
Vic’s recipe comes with story of it’s creation, it’s naming, and the bottles he used. It looks like the result of a great discovery.
Combine these impressions with a central observation that most of today’s cocktailscienti will make: The Trader Vic recipe is The Recipe. Don’s Mai Tai is an OK drink. Vic’s is… Oh Wow.
Don may well have invented a Tiki drink he called a Mai Tai before Vic. I would suggest the evidence leans that way; though that evidence, like most things Don, is deliciously shady.
But I submit that it doesn’t matter. Trader Vic threw together five simple ingredients in perfect proportion, and created a drink that is the apex of the movement. In whatever order these men came up with their Mai Tais, the drinks are dramatically different beasts; homonyms, not synonyms. And the one that matters is Vic’s.

About the author

Doug

I am 48 years old, married with two young daughters. My interests are tennis, reading, computers, politics, and of course cocktails. I run a murder mystery party business that caters to both corporate and private events, Killing Time, murder consultants.

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