Legend has it, the mai tai was so popular upon its invention in 1944, it depleted world rum supplies all the way through the 1950s. The brains behind this classic cocktail? Victor J. Bergeron, a.k.a. Trader Vic. He wanted to showcase the unique, pungent flavor of a 17-year-old J. Wray and Nephew Jamaican rum. And as such, it was a relatively simple concoction of rum, orgeat, orange curaçao, simple syrup, and a hint of lime.
Since then, the original mai tai recipe has been riffed on what seems like an infinite number of times, resulting in drinks that range from puckeringly sweet to drink-you-under-the-table boozy. Our version falls somewhere in between: We’ve added plenty of lime juice, which gives the cocktail just enough zing to tame the overall sweetness. And even though there’s enough rum in it (three different types!) to sink a ship, there’s still ample tropical fruitiness from the pineapple, grenadine, and Grand Marnier for smooth sailing — er, sipping. In short, it’s a perfectly balanced mai tai.
That said, what really makes this particular recipe special is the homemade orgeat syrup.
We toast a couple handfuls of almonds, grind them up in the food processor, and then simmer the coarse powder in some sugar water. Once the mixture has rested for a few hours, we strain out all the almond bits and stir in a jigger of brandy and a wee splash of rose water. It gives the mai tai a nutty, fruity-floral sweetness that adds additional layers of complexity, but doesn’t bring the drink into coy territory.
Of course, you can certainly substitute premade orgeat if you’re not feeling particularly intrepid. Either way, you’ll wind up with a juicy, refreshing drink that looks like a sunset in a glass — and will bring a devil-may-care beachcomber vibe to backyard happy hours, afternoons by the pool … or 70th anniversary celebrations (wink!).
For the orgeat syrup:
2 cups sliced almonds
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
1 ¼ cups water
1 oz brandy
½ tsp rose water
For the mai tai:
2 fresh pineapple wedges, divided
1 oz Zaya Gran Reserva rum
¾ oz Mount Gay Barbados rum
½ oz Bacardi Superior rum
1 ¼ oz freshly squeezed lime juice
½ oz Grand Marnier
½ oz orgeat syrup
1 Gelson’s organic mint sprig, for garnish
1 maraschino cherry, for garnish
To make the orgeat syrup: Preheat the oven to 350°. Spread the almonds in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for about 7 minutes, or until light golden brown.
Transfer the almonds to a food processor and pulse until coarsely ground.
In a small pot over medium heat, combine the granulated sugar and water, and bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring continuously, until the sugar dissolves.
Stir in the ground almonds, cover, remove from the heat, and let sit for 3 to 8 hours.
Strain the syrup through a sieve lined with 2 layers of cheesecloth and discard the almond pulp. Stir in the brandy and rose water.
Transfer the orgeat syrup to a sealed container and chill until ready to use. The syrup can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
To make the mai tai: Muddle 1 pineapple wedge in a cocktail shaker and fill the shaker halfway with ice cubes.
In the shaker, combine the rums, lime juice, Grand Marnier, orgeat syrup, and a dash of Angostura bitters. Shake vigorously until frosty on the outside.
Fill a tulip glass with crushed ice and strain the mai tai into the glass. Top with a splash of grenadine.
Garnish with a pineapple wedge, mint sprig, and maraschino cherry. Add a cocktail umbrella and enjoy!