Creating the perfect mai tai

  • By Jan Roberts-Dominguez
  • Tuesday, February 28, 2012 12:11pm
  • Life

The fact that I’ve been obsessing over mai tais lately probably means I need a vacation. Or that it’s mid-winter in Oregon. Or both.

These days, a proper mai tai is the quickest transport back to the North Shore of Oahu, a spot I’ve been hankering for ever since my nephew’s destination wedding lured the family there for a week in November 2010. All events were launched with someone thrusting a mai tai into my hand, sort of the ultimate Hawaiian ice breaker. A great tradition that.

Of course, some of those mai tais were not so good; some of them were downright horrid. But the great ones had me humming a happy tune.

Which surprised me, because the thing is, being more of a single malt whiskey sort of girl, I’m not into the classic little umbrella drink. When made correctly, however, the mai tai is anything but.

Indeed, the mai tai is quite a misunderstood cocktail. For starters, you really need to like the taste of rum — dark, Jamaican rum. It’s the backbone of this drink, and needs to be front and center on the palate as you savor each sip. Plus, a splash of said rum is floated on top, providing a hearty introduction to the exquisite experience to come.

Joining forces with the rich dark Jamaican rum is a moderating dose of white rum. The white rum is fruitier than the Jamaican dark and helps bring the drink into balance along with the small amount of citrusy-fruity flavor with an almond finish thanks to the orgeat syrup, another necessary element in a fine-tuned mai tai.

So about three weeks ago, I began my quest for the perfect mai tai formula. I pored through some of my favorite Hawaiian cookbooks, checked all my cocktail reference material and ultimately, did an extensive internet search.

The recipes fall between two extremes, from very Spartan in anything other than dark rum, orange liqueur, orgeat syrup and lime, all the way over to a cornucopia of tropical fruit, citrus juices and grenadine.

The one with the most potential for my taste was created by Molly Jacobson, a food writer covering the Maui restaurant scene through her blog,

She brought a genuine passion to her research and her ultimate recipe for the coveted drink rang true on my mind’s palate. Even though it had more ingredients than some would deem necessary to produce a good mai tai, each one of those ingredients seemed to fulfill a purpose. Sort of like a carefully crafted dinner party guest list.

I collected the necessary ingredients and started mixing. Hers was indeed heavenly and came very close to what I loved about the mai tais I had deemed “perfect” that Thanksgiving week in Paradise. With a bit of tweaking, I landed on my dream drink.

When I described it to my nephew’s wife, Katie, who, like me, loves a good mai tai, she looked at me and said: “That’s an awful lot of ingredients. “

And it’s true. But the fact is they can be gathered and combined far in advance — days even — of preparing the drink. So what’s the big deal, particularly if this turns out to be the one perfect mai tai that transports you from a rainy day in Oregon to your own private beach at Kawela Bay?

This rcipe makes enough for six average-sized drinks or four serious “take-away-the-keys” drinks.

With so many ingredients assembled, it makes sense to combine them all for this amount, even if you are making only one, since the rest of the mix can be stored in the refrigerator for a few days.

Jan’s Back-To-Oahu mai tai

3/4cup light rum

3/4cup dark rum (such as Meyer’s)

1/4cup Grand Marnier or other flavorful, good-quality orange liqueur (see note)

1/2cup pineapple-coconut juice (see note)

1/2cup guava juice

1/2cup fresh-squeezed lime juice

1/4cup orgeat syrup (a well-stocked supermarket should have one in their flavored syrups section; usually near bulk coffee products)

1/4cup simple syrup (see note)

Garnish recommendations: mint leaves

Additional garnishes: fresh pineapple wedges or lime wedges

Combine all of the ingredients except the garnishes and chill well.

Fill 8-ounce glasses with cubed ice. Add the mai tai mixture, stir, then garnish and serve.

Note on “Good-quality orange liqueur”: For me, Grand Marnier is the gold standard. My second choice — at almost half the price, is another French import, Harlequin orange liqueur. Also, Cointreau is a good substitute.

Note on pineapple-coconut juice: I use L &A brand, which can be found among other juices in glass jars in the juice aisle of a well-stocked supermarket. Short of that, consider splitting the difference and mixing straight pineapple juice with straight coconut juice.

Note on guava juice: Kern’s makes a decent one and is widely distributed, so you can obtain it easily. Otherwise, check the freezer section for a concentrate. In a pinch, grapefruit juice can be substituted, because the flavor is somewhat similar, with the grapefruit juice lacking the depth and floral notes of a good guava juice.

Note on simple syrup: This is easy to prepare. Gently heat equal parts of water and sugar over medium heat in a small pot. When the sugar dissolves completely, remove the syrup from the burner and let cool. Store at room temperature or in the refrigerator.

Makes 6 (5-ounce) drinks.

Here’s a great appetizer to serve along with your mai tais.

This isn’t a traditional Huli Huli chicken preparation, as made in Hawaii, but its texture and flavor is as close to our Corvallis Local Boyz concoction as I’ve been able to come. It’s also delicious over rice or tucked into a full-sized bun.

Huli Huli chicken sliders

2tablespoons canola oil

2pounds boneless/skinless chicken thighs, halved or quartered

1pound boneless/skinless chicken breast, cut into 1- or 2-inch chunks

1/2cup diced yellow onion

2cups chicken broth (canned is okay)

2cups pineapple juice

2tablespoons soy sauce

1/4cup brown sugar

1/3cup peeled and shredded fresh ginger

8to 12 small buns, sliced and lightly toasted

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and saute until the pieces are browned on all sides. Add the onion and saute until softened, about 2 minutes.

Deglaze the pot with the chicken broth, stirring and scraping up all the cooked-on bits of food. Add the pineapple juice, soy sauce, brown sugar and ginger.

Bring the liquid to a boil, then cover and simmer gently until the chicken is very tender, about 60 to 90 minutes.

When ready to serve, transfer the chicken to a warm bowl and serve, alongside a platter of the toasted buns so folks can fix their own sliders.

Serves 4 to 6.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis., Ore., food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at

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