Last night I dropped into Trader Vic’s recently opened Shanghai restaurant for a Shanghai Expat hosted cocktail party. The service at Trader Vics is five star, the Polynesian decor takes you a world away from the grime and grind of Shanghai, and the food and drinks are not half bad. However, you can’t help thinking the cocktails could be better. The drinks are by no means bad, but it is depressing to patronize the joint that invented the Mai Tai only to find the great drink a mere shadow of what it could be.
Unlike most places, Trader Vic’s make Mai Tais more or less to the original Victor Bergaron recipe. That is, they don’t add any fruit juices other than lime, the juice is freshly squeezed, orgeat is used rather than almond liqueur, no strange liqueurs like apricot brandy go in the mix, and the drink is a solid rum punch rather than a diluted fruit punch with no rum taste. In short, they make a pretty good Mai Tai. Sadly they don’t use good rum.
The other disappointing thing is that Trader Vics do not use what I would consider a good quality mint*. The mint they use is the mild and herbaceous mint with soft leaves common around Shanghai. This mint doesn’t do a lot to the taste of a drink, or anything else for that matter. More intense mint with stiffer leaves is sometimes available in Shanghai, just a littler harder to find. I think the stuff with stiffer leaves is peppermint, and maybe that is not the ideal mint to use. In any case it seems better to me than mint with no real flavor.
The Mai Tai was originally concocted with Wray Nephew 17 year old Jamaican rum. As his chain of restaurants expanded and stocks of the Wray Nephew 17 year old became depleted and increasingly expensive, Victor Bergaron began using lesser rums. In particular he began mixing lesser Jamaican rums with the very dry Martinique rums to obtain a similar complexity to the original Wray Nephew product. Unfortunately, these days Trader Vic’s uses standard Meyers rum plus a house ‘Mai Tai mix’. The Mai Tai mix probably contains a little aged rum, but the end result is underwhelming.
Anyway, after the Trader Vic’s experience last night I thought I’d try making my own Mai Tai. Since aged Jamaican is unavailable in Shanghai I used a mixture of aged Cuban rum and Martinique rum. I found Marie Brizard Orange Triple Sec the other day, so that was another reason for trying the drink again. Previously I’ve only been able to find cheap Bols triple sec or Cointreau. Cointreau is nice, but the taste and alcohol content may be a little intense to make it a perfect orange triple sec substitute.
My Mai Tai
1 oz Havana Club 7 Anos
1 oz St. James Amber
1 oz fresh squeezed lime juice
1/2 oz Marie Brizard Orange Curacao
1/4 oz Monin Orgeat (Monin is quite intense so I reduced slightly from the 1/2 oz recommended in a lot of recipes)
1/4 oz simple sugar syrup
Shake over crushed ice and serve in a double rocks glass, putting one of the spent lime shells in the drink. Garnish with some nice quality mint if you have it. I didn’t have mint handy so used a pineapple spear with a maraschino cherry.
The version makes a nice drink. The rum taste could be stronger, but the complexity is there. The nutty flavors of the Martinique rum go well with the orgeat. In the absence of a decent Jamaican rum well aged Havana Club works OK. The citrus flavors seem far more of a background note using the Marie Brizard Curacao compared to Cointreau. I could be wrong though since it has been at least six months since I made this with Cointreau. If the drink has any weakness it could be that the Orgeat comes through a bit strong. Perhaps some more adjusting is in order, or perhaps real Jamaican rum would fix this.
* I have revised my opinions on this mint question. At the time of writing I think I had the idea that any drink containing mint should be as minty as possible, with peppermint offering a promising direction. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, how absolutely disgusting! I can’t remember exactly what the Trader Vic’s mint was like, but I’m sure it was fine. For pretty much any cocktail, something closer to spearmint is going to be much better than peppermint. Maybe the Stinger could be an exception – were one to add a mint garnish?