Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A Short Treatise on a Favorite Beverage

It has now been a full year since Trader Vic's has opened its doors in Scottsdale once more. I feel extremely blessed to be a part of it from the beginning. The anniversary kind of snuck up on all of us; we've been having so much fun at the restaurant that it hasn't felt even close to a year. We've seen faces come and go, and still people come in at a pretty darn good rate. And I've come to appreciate even more the craft of the cocktail. Vic really knew what he was doing ages ago, and his spirit definitely lives on in all of the spirits we serve today. My favorite is our signature drink, the classic Mai Tai.

The Mai Tai at Trader Vic's is completely unlike anything else I've been served with the same name. So many places load theirs up with tropical juices and heavy syrups, and the result is a saccharine concoction that might as well just be fruit punch. At Vic's, the recipe is very simple; just our Royal Amber Rum, fresh lime, sweet orange, and a little hint of almond to round things out.

The Mai Tai got its start way back in 1944 at the original Trader Vic's on 65th and San Pablo in Oakland (the area is now Emeryville), California. One day, Vic decided to create a new drink, something he had done quite a few times in the past. He started out with great rum, a 17-year Jamaican from J. Wray & Nephew. He added a little Holland DeKuyper Orange Curaçao, some Garnier orgeat syrup from France, the juice of a lime, and a dollop of Rock Candy Syrup. He gave it a mighty shake with some crushed ice, poured it into a glass, and was about to taste his new creation when he found out that a couple of friends of his from Tahiti, Ham and Carrie Guild, had just come in to the restaurant. Vic had the bartenders make a couple more of this new drink, and he took them out to the Guilds. He offered it to them, mentioning that they were the first to taste it, and tell him what they thought. Carrie took a sip. Her eyes lit up and she exclaimed, "This is maitai! It's maitai roa a'e!" To which Vic naturally could only say one thing... "What the hell does that mean?" Carrie replied that it's Tahitian for "Out of this world, the best"*. So, Vic decided at that point to call it the Mai Tai. It's one of the rare exceptions to my Chowhound Rule Of Thumb #2- the Mai Tai's name means "good", and it is very good indeed.

Nowadays, it's impossible to truly make the original Mai Tai, as Trader Vic's exhausted the world supply of J. Wray & Nephew 17-year just one year after the drink's creation, and Garnier doesn't make orgeat anymore. Thankfully, J. Wray & Nephew is still making rum, now under the name of Appleton Estate, and Dekuyper is certainly still making orange curaçao. There are several brands of orgeat available; I favor Torani because it uses real sugar. So, I now present my house version of the Original Mai Tai:

2 ounces Appleton Estate Extra (the black label one)
1/2 ounce DeKuyper Orange Curaçao
1/2 ounce Torani Orgeat Syrup
1/2 ounce fresh squeezed lime juice
1/4 ounce Rock Candy Syrup

Shake very well with 2 cups of crushed ice. Pour into a glass without straining, and garnish with a sprig of mint (and a speared maraschino cherry and pineapple tidbit if you have them handy).

There's a couple of things that I should take the time to explain about two of the ingredients. Buying crushed ice at the grocery store won't work, it's not crushed enough. You can crush ice at home with an ice crusher, a halfway decent blender, or by putting ice in a plastic bag, wrapping it with a towel, and beating the hell out of it with a heavy blunt object (I favor a marble rolling pin, you may get better mileage out of a mallet or cast iron skillet). There is also a good chance that you can get your hands on some finely crushed ice (the same kind we use at the restaurant, as far as I can tell) just by visiting your local Sonic Drive-In. Just ask the friendly carhop, and you should be able to get your hands on a bunch. The other thing to explain is the Rock Candy syrup, also known as simple syrup. There are a number of brands out there that you can buy, and I don't recommend any of them. It's incredibly easy to make at home. I use a double strength one in the Mai Tai; just combine 1 pound of sugar with 1 cup of water, and heat either in the microwave or on the stove until the liquid is completely clear and there are no signs of sugar granules anywhere. Pour it into a bottle, and store in the fridge. It keeps indefinitely. You can make a normal strength solution with equal amounts sugar and water (use twice as much if you do), but don't try making one stronger than listed here; if you do, it will spontaneously crystallize and you'll be left with a very difficult to clean bottle (but a massive chunk of rock candy to show for it).

*She's right, "maitai" means good, roa and a'e both act as affirmative enhancements. The closer literal translation would be "It's good! It's really, REALLY good!"