Tag - trader vic

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Mai Tai Throwdown
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Who Were the Elders of Tiki: Trader Vic
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Tiki Drinks: The Haleukelani Cocktail and The Eastern Sour
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Tiki Drink: Pinky Gonzales
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Tiki Drink: Fog Cutter

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.

Who Were the Elders of Tiki: Trader Vic

{NOTE: This is part of a three part series of posts. The other Elder of Tiki, Don the Beachcomber, is profiled here. And my examination of which of these two really invented the Mai Tai can be read here.}
Trader Vic's SignAs we round into the home stretch of Tiki Month, I want to do some historical examination of the Elders of Tiki—the men who made the legend.
This post will concentrate on the man I personally always identified with starting Tiki, Trader Vic. His main co-conspirator/rival, Don the Beachcomber is up next, so hold your horses, Donnites. I grew up knowing of the Trader, because my parents were San Franciscans during the appropriate point in history. While the Tiki in their souls was buried deep, it did erupt from time to time, and when it did, the name Trader Vic usually triggered the eruption.
Victor Jules Bergeron was the wooden-legged restaurant entrepreneur who built a reputation and an empire of his eponymous restaurants up from a crappy little bar in the wrong neighborhood of Oakland that he opened in 1934.
Vic contracted tuberculosis before he was four, when the San Francisco Quake of 1906 drove his family to Oakland. Within two years, the tuberculosis cost him his leg. Throughout his life, the disease would slowly take other bits and pieces of him. But the kid with one leg was a walking lesson in the American Dream; his hardships, and his mother’s treatment of them, made him the force he was.

I guess she could have made me a cripple instead of a successful man. Suppose she had pampered and petted me. I wouldn’t be worth a damn.
-Trader Vic

He made money catching wild birds to buy his first wooden leg at age eighteen, and at age thirty two, he bought a run-down property in Oakland and built a one-room bar with the unfortunate name of Hinky Dinks. Victor was a one man show behind the bar and swiftly built a clientele. He soon took inspiration from Don’s Beachcomber in Los Angeles, as well as his own Caribbean cocktail pilgrimage, and transformed Hinky Dinks into a tropical-themed paradise named for it’s owner, who was sometimes (and forever after) called Trader Vic. The restaurant rapidly transformed from successful neighborhood joint into wildly popular destination eatery, fueled by the bizarre decor, Vic’s personality, and especially the fantastic rum concoctions he served up.
Trader VicVic was a huge believer in cluttering his place with wild paraphernalia. It was all there to stimulate conversation, as he felt conversation sold drinks. And he sold a lot of drinks. And he fed a lot of people some terrific food, too. In fact, in 1941, the great Herb Caen wrote the unthinkable words, The best restaurant in San Francisco is in Oakland.
Vic went from successful restauranteur to genuine celebrity. Eventually, Vic expanded across the Bay to San Francisco, then across the land and ocean, assembling an empire of Trader Vic’s that survived the implosion of the Tiki age, has regenerated once again to around twenty restaurants, and sells vast amounts of supplies, equipment, and even liquors around the world.
Vic was an empire builder. He took his great success and built on it, keeping his eye on the business that got him where he was, nurturing it, and preserving it. He died at 82, leaving his family a business that was fading largely due to the whims of world fashion, but that was robust enough to survive and thrive again to this day.
The Trader was no saint. Divorce is a sad thing, but sometimes it happens and I understand that. But people (usually men) who become famous and decide they need a new wife as part of that package take a serious ding in my book. I hope Vic’s first wife took a big chunk out of him.
But his credentials as a husband aside, he was one of the two great fathers of an entire culture: Tiki.
He was not only a great entrepreneur, he was a hugely gifted bartender and drink crafter. He invented some of the greatest of Tiki drinks, and set the standard model to which many of the other mixologists of that era hewed. A large number of drinks I’ve already written about this month in my examination of Tiki were his direct inventions. And his model has been mine in most of my experimentations.
A lot of what I’ve learned about Vic comes from a combination biography, bar guide, and cookbook that was written at the behest of his descendants and the business: Trader Vic’s Tiki Party!: Cocktails & Food to Share with Friends It’s a beautiful book, with lots of gorgeous pictures, entertaining prose, and a gigantic helping of kissing the old man’s dead ass. It’s fun, and I recommend it.
Next up, I take on the Trader’s contemporary rival, the great Don the Beachcomber.

Tiki Drinks: The Haleukelani Cocktail and The Eastern Sour

board-of-tiki-idolsAmong the requests I made of the Board of Tiki Idols was for Tiki drinks to try that were good and interesting. Tiare was most prolific is sending me links with drinks I could rip off, er, riff on. Among the posts she sent was this one: Tiki Drinks With a Twist. It offers a number of classic Tiki recipes that she modified in one way or another to take into account her own inventory situation. I picked out two drinks that interested me, and set to work.
I chose these two because they are bourbon-based. When I saw this, I was a bit puzzled. Tiki drinks based on liquor from back in the the Hollah? About the only spirit I could think of that made me think less of Tiki was liquor from the highlands of Scotland.

Hey!
You know Kentucky was settled….

Yes, I know Kentucky was settled in large part by Scots, and yes, I know the geography, economy, culture, etc. of both the Highlands and Appalachia are remarkably similar. And no, I don’t intend to go into it further right now. That’s another post, for another day, in (most to the point) another month. For right now, let’s just say whisk(e)y in general is not what I think of when I think of Tiki.

Of course not.
Tiki is about Rum, Rhum, and Rum!

You know, I can lock you in again….
The point is, I was intrigued. And since Tiara is among my muses, I followed.
Let us start with the Halekulani Cocktail, pronounced (I think) hall-AY-koo-lon-ee, from a bar with thr awesome name of the House Without a Key Lounge.
halekulani-cocktail

HALEKULANI COCKTAIL

  • 1.5 oz. Maker’s Mark bourbon
  • .5 oz. unsweetened pineapple juice
  • .5 oz. lemon juice
  • .5 oz. orange juice
  • splash grenadine
  • splash homemade maraschino cherry juice
  • 1 dash Angustora bitters

Shake over ice and strain into a cognac glass filled with fresh ice.

First off, I made a further change to Tiara’s changes. I had no passionfruit liqueur, so I substituted maraschino cherry juice. Also, she calls for a half a teaspoon. Doug can’t measure that small….
The resulting cocktail is pretty good. The overall character is a bit sour, but pleasantly so. The Angustora is detectable but more in the form of a slight edge, rather than bitterness. The Maker’s is a good bourbon here. I don’t see a cheaper bourbon as being very friendly, and a much fancier product would confuse the issue, rather than enhance it. And bourbon this whiskey must be. The unique caramel sweetness you seem to only get from Kentucky is needed to give this drink its nice balance.
I will say that overall it is a bit two-dimensional, particularly for a Tiki drink. The luxurious, meandering garden of flavors is more focused here. Still, it is gorgeous and tasty. Serve it on the rocks in a highball with a single cherry and no one need know you are offering them up to the Tiki gods!
Tiare’s other bourbon offering is the Eastern Whiskey Sour. It was invented by Trader Vic to honor the opening of his restaurant location in that natural Tiki Mecca, Toronto.
eastern-sour
Here Tiara made four major changes to the Trader’s recipe, one of ingredient, several of degree. I found hers to be an improvement, but I’ll put Vic’s here. Go read her post for the improved version.

EASTERN WHISKEY SOUR

  • .5 oz. orange juice
  • .5 oz. lemon juice
  • 2 oz. bourbon
  • dash of orgeat
  • dash of simple syrup

Shake with ice and pour without straining into glass. Garnish with a sprig of mint and a fruit stick.

Tiare uses lime juice, and a lower concentration of bourbon.
This drink is actually tastier to me than the Halekulani, but is even less Tiki-like.

Duh!
It’s a Whiskey Sour….

True. The point to examine here is that the flavors meld so well together that they lose much individuality, especially in Tiare’s version. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just not too Tiki to me. The Eastern Sour has wonderful first flavor, and a wonderful last. They just happen to be the same, so it hardly a challenging drink. Sling one together for your more novice guests, who won’t feel gypped by being denied the chance to spend five minutes describing their cocktail.
Oh, and the Eastern Sour could probably benefit a bit more than the Halekulani from a higher-end bourbon than Maker’s, if you like. I haven’t tried one, but if you do, let me know if it’s an improvement.

Tiki Drink: Pinky Gonzales

pinky-gonzales-real
Let’s try another recipe from Trader Vic’s Tiki Party, shall we?
Here we go:

PINKY GONZALES

  • 2 oz. Inocente tequila
  • .5 oz. fresh squeezed lime juice, save the lime half.
  • .5 oz. Cointreau
  • .25 oz. simple syrup
  • .25 oz. orgeat
  • 2 cups crushed ice

Shake all thoroughly together and pour without straining in to a double old-fashioned glass.
Garnish with the spent lime half, and whatever else looks good from the produce department.

This is a decent little low-ball cocktail. Given all the Mai Tai mania that has gripped the cocktailosphere lately, it should be apparent to many of you that this is essentially the Trader’s take on a Mai Tai with tequila. The Pinky Gonzales is certainly sweet, but it’s not sticky or cloying. There are a lot of flavors here and they open up in your mouth as you sip, with that tequila bite showing up on the back end. It is very clean on the mouth afterwards, which is an odd feature of a lot of tequila drinks. Tequila has that funk that announces itself in no uncertain terms, but that funk also seems to clear the decks behind it. Of course, tequila will clear the decks cognitively too, if you let it.

inocenteI’ll throw in a word or two here about the tequila I used, Inocente. This triple-distilled white tequila is one of the gentlest tequila’s I’ve ever encountered. If you like the funky background in Margaritas, but stay away from other tequila cocktails because of the severely in your face character of the spirit, Inocente is a damn good tequila to broaden your horizons with. If you intend to do some shots, and want to make sure your crowd will go for a second round, Inocente is a very smooth choice that should scare off the minimum number of drinkers. If the softness of the liquor is not sufficient incentive, you can tell them that the company claims that the triple distillation process reduces the hangover-inducing contaminants.
If you are a serious connoisseur of tequila, you may find Inocente a bit bland, or over-processed. That’s OK, no liquor should be all things to all people, or we’d have no need for all this wonderful variety we have.
As a final note, the bottle they use is gorgeous, and deserves a spot on your display shelf. When I finish this bottle, I’ll be reusing it in-house, either on the bar for infusions, or in the bath for homemade bath unguents. Reduce—Reuse—Recyle!

So how does the Pinky Gonzales compare to its progenitor? Is it better than a classic Mai Tai? Hush your mouth! It lacks the melded depth of the Mai Tai, probably because tequila lacks the depth of old or mixed rums. I considered that this might be put down to the Inocente’s purity, but I imagine that if you used a more full-flavored (more impurity-laden?) tequila, you would get less meld more than more depth. Overall, the drink is still a nice little diversion. I’ll probably make it again for myself at some point, and I’ll certainly keep its recipe on hand in the event a guest wants something with tequila and it’s a Tiki night.
And there are some other more general things to discuss about Tiki that the Pinky Gonzales illustrates.
I had never thought of the spent lime halves I produce so many of these days (shut up, Gabe!) as having any use beyond clogging the disposal. Yet, this was only the first of many drinks I’ve run across which employs the lime shell as a proposed garnish. It works surprisingly well. A lot of Tiki garnishes seem a bit of a waste of good ingredients, but this one is essentially free. Reduce—Reuse—Recycle! See? Wouldn’t Al Gore be proud? I’ll bet that Pinky Gonzaleses are all they serve at his house….
Finally, I gotta talk about the name: Pinky Gonzales. It’s… well, it’s a bit stupid really. And I’m sure it’s politically incorrect. (Maybe the staff doesn’t serve these at Chez Gore.) BOTI member Dr. Bamboo examined the whiff of blasphemous that appealed to stuffed-shirt WASPs of the old days. Perhaps the tinge of politically incorrect that pervades most of Tiki (not just the Pinky Gonzales) is part of the resurgent appeal of Tiki today. Political religions aside, the name is silly. And lots of Tiki Drinks have silly names, e.g. Doctor Funk of Tahiti, The Colonel’s Big Opu, and The Zombie. Before the month is out, I’m going to come up with one decent Tiki drink of my own and give it a completely ridiculous name….

Tiki Drink: Fog Cutter

Fog Cutter. Hell, after two of these, you won’t even see the stuff.
—Trader Vic

fog-cutter
If you are just stumbling through, February is Tiki Month here on the Pegu Blog. All Tiki, all month! Behold, my first genuine Tiki drink of the grand experiment: The Fog Cutter.
Let’s start with the recipe as I put it together:

THE FOG CUTTER

  • 2 oz. Mount Gay Eclipse Silver
  • 1 oz. Courvoisier
  • 1/2 oz. Bombay Sapphire
  • 2 oz. fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 oz. Tropicana Orange Juice (no pulp)
  • 1/2 oz. orgeat syrup
  • 1 cup small cube ice
  • 1/4 oz. sherry

Shake all but the sherry with the ice, then pour without straining into a pilsner glass. Add more ice to fill, then float sherry on top. Garnish with homemade maraschino cherries and chunks of pineapple.

I chose to write up this drink first because I really liked it from the first sip. It has a lot of depth of flavor, with tropical fruits getting along nicely, and the various liquors coming out pretty assertively, despite the fairly low overall proof of this cocktail. It is sweet and exotic, without the cloying overload you normally get in average restaurant tropical drinks. This would be a fabulous hot day libation, as it is both sweet and thirst-quenching. I’m not sure how it would go on a dank, foggy day, however. The one thing I’m unconvinced of is the sherry float. Does this add anything to the drink, really? Overall, this drink will definitely stay in the rotation once Tiki Month has run its course. If all you’ve had is Mai Tais from Applebee’s and therefore thought that Tiki drinks aren’t for you, the Fog Cutter is a good one to reconsider over.
So, what general Tiki lessons do I take from this first recipe out the box?

  • Orgeat is a magical substance when used with fruit juice. It makes a lot of other tastes meld better than I’d expect. It’s almost like mortar between stonework. At least I get the distinct impression that it’s the orgeat that’s performing this office. I’ll be experimenting and writing further on this stuff as we go.
  • This drink is also illustrative of Tiki drinks’ tendency to mix lots of different base spirits. I’m much more comfortable with a mix of a single liquor with a liqueur or two, so this will be serious Terra Incognita for me. Is this melding of liquors, even just melding of different rums, a prerequisite for a Tiki drink? It this process just adventurous, wild abandon, or is it cunning alchemy?

And where do I need to improve myself to bring my Fog Cutter up to serious Tiki standards? I love the picture, and love the drink, but my first failing is with the garnish. It classically calls for a mint leaf. My mint is all under feet of snow. I need to lay some fresh in from the grocery store. And if I don’t go with the mint, I need something more elaborate, or at least with larger chunks of fruit.
Also, I didn’t squeeze the orange juice. I should start. But then again, I will not be doing that. If I start juicing oranges for my cocktails, my daughters will start expecting that I do it for their breakfast. Henceforth all OJ used here will be from the carton. I think OJ doesn’t pale near as quickly as lemon and lime juice do once squeezed. The pilsner glass works nicely, but is hardly a full on Tiki vessel.
Trader Vic’s has served this drink since the forties in a signature tall ceramic mug, graced by an island maiden wearing one half of a hula outfit. I gotta get my hands on one of those.
The mug, not the island maiden!

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