The Mai Tai may be Polynesian in name, but it's American in origin, reportedly created by a legendary California restaurateur, the late Vic Bergeron of Trader Vic's fame.
"There's been a lot of conversation over the beginning of the Mai Tai. And I want to get the record straight," Bergeron said before he died. "I originated the Mai Tai. Many others have claimed credit. All this aggravates my ulcer completely. Anyone who says I didn't create this drink is a dirty stinker."
Don the Beachcomber meanwhile stated:
"There 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."
Based on circumstantial evidence history favors Team Trader, who, in a 1947 book, "The Trader Vic's Bartender's Guide (Revised)," told how he originated the Mai Tai in his Oakland restaurant:
"In 1944 after success with several exotic rum drinks, I felt a new drink was needed. I thought about all the really successful drinks- martinis, manhattans, daiquiris, all basically simple drinks. I took down a bottle of 17-year old rum. It was J. Wray; Nephew from Jamaica-surprisingly golden in color, medium bodied, but with the rich pungent flavor particular to the Jamaican blends. The flavor of this great rum wasn't meant to be overpowered with heavy addition of fruit juices and flavorings. I took a fresh lime, added some orange curacao from Holland, a dash of rock candy syrup, and a dollop of French orgeat for its subtle almond flavor. I added a generous amount of shaved ice and shook it vigorously by hand to produce the marriage I was after. Half the lime shell went into each drink for color and I stuck in a branch of fresh mint. I gave the first two to Eastham and Carrie Guild, friends from Tahiti who were there that night. Carrie took one sip and said, 'Mai tai roa ae.'In Tahitian this means,'out of this world, the best.' Well, that was that. I named the drink 'Mai Tai.'"Both stories are certainly believable. In fact, in the book Tropical Rum Drinks Cuising by Don the Beachcomber, Arnold Bitner claims that the Mai Tai was created by Don in 1933. Bitner is alleged to have claimed that he has a Don the Beachcomber menu listing the Mai Tai before Trader Vic's claimed 1944 date. But there's a catch when Bitner listed the recipe for the "original" Mai Tai. Neither the drink nor the recipe, bore any resemblance to today's recipe for a classic Mai Tai. Did Don make first use of the name, without creating the modern drink? Did bartenders attempt to duplicate one of these drinks guessing at the ingredients, and experimenting until it tasted right? We may never know.
The Mai Tai became popular at Trader Vic's restaurants in Oakland, San Francisco and Seattle. In 1953, Bergeron introduced the Mai Tai to Hawaii at the Royal Hawaiian and Moana Hotels. Today, contemporary versions of the original Mai Tai may be found in Hawaii's finer drinking establishments, however more often the Mai Tai of today is a pale (or should that be technicolor!) version of the real thing.