Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk |

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

It’s the middle of February. The deepest part of winter. A perfect time to turn our attention to the tropics.

Imagine you are sitting at a bar in front of a Pink Palace. The sun is shining, warm enough to tan, but not so hot as to burn. A trade wind is gently rustling the napkin on the bar in front of you. The ocean waves break on the reef behind you and kiss the sand as they roll up on the shore.

Feel the breeze? Good. Then it’s time to wrap your hand around a cold glass garnished with a slice of pineapple, a wedge of lime and a perfect red cherry. It’s time to take the pink umbrella out and stir (or not, if that is your preference) a dark rum floater into the fresh fruit juices and take an intoxicating, refreshing, transforming sip.

It’s Mai Tai time.

Of all tropical cocktails (think the Tropical Itch, the Blue Hawaii, etc.) perhaps none is so famed, nor revered, as the Mai Tai. And the quintessential place to drink one is the Mai Tai Bar on the beach in Waikiki at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Founded in 1927, the Mai Tai Bar (though it did not adopt that moniker until the 1950s) has been offering visitors who arrived in Hawaii ” first by luxury liner, later by Pan-Am Clipper, and now by jumbo jet ” a taste of the Islands ever since.

The grand dame of Waikiki and the hotel that set the standard for all beach hotels to come, The Royal Hawaiian has just undergone a major refurbishment. The newly renovated Mai Tai Bar is now under the capable stewardship of Hawaiian-born master mixologist Joey Gottesman.

Gottesman has a passion for making great cocktails using only the freshest ingredients ” no bottled juices or canned fruit ” and the finest liquors. The result is that the “new” Mai Tai Bar has set the bar, no pun intended, higher than ever. “There is a responsibility to reinvigorate the standards of the hotel and I definitely feel that,” says Gottesman when asked what it’s like to take the helm of such a storied place.

While Gottesman has put together an eclectic and exciting drink menu, he realizes that the Mai Tai is the go-to drink. He has reintroduced a version that approximates the original recipe (more on that later) he calls the “Scratch” Mai-Tai. It uses Bacardi Silver rum, Bols triple sec, a shot of Orgeat (an almond flavored liquor) and a splash of freshly squeezed orange juice. All are mixed in a chilled shaker and served on the rocks in a 14-oz. glass with a float of Myers dark rum.

For the discerning, he has also created two specialty Mai Tais. The “Garden Mai Tai” substitutes Appleton Estate VX Rum for the Bacardi and is supplemented with a shot of Alize Rose, a French liqueur; lychee, a tropical fruit; and a splash of sparkling rose. This is a distinctly lighter, more graceful drink and one that refreshes instead of slapping one upside the head.

My favorite, though, was his top-shelf offering called “The Royal Mai Tai.” Fresh pineapple juice and a house-muddled cherry/vanilla compote combine as the fruit element. They are mixed with Ron Matsusalem rum from the Dominican Republic, Cointreau and the Italian Amaretto Disaronno almond liqueur. Fresh, fruity, strong, clean, this was as tasty a tropical drink as I have ever had under a Hula Moon.

The history of the Mai Tai is open to debate. In the 1940s, both Vic “Trader Vic” Bergeron and Donn Beach had opened eponymous restaurants ” Trader Vic’s in Oakland and Seattle, and Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles. Both claim credit for the original.

My vote goes to Trader Vic, who in a 1970 letter described in detail how he mixed J. Wray Nephew 17-year old Jamaican rum, fresh lime juice, a Dutch orange Curacao, a dash of “Rock Candy Syrup” or simple syrup, and French orgeat, and shook it vigorously behind his bar at the Oakland Trader Vic’s. A friend, Carrie Guild, who was visiting from Tahiti, sipped it and commented in Tahitian, “Mai tai, roa ae,” loosely translated to mean “the best.” That was in 1944.

What is not in dispute is that Vic, hired as a consultant by the owners of the Royal Hawaiian to develop drinks, brought the recipe to the hotel in 1953, and the rest is history.

It is now up to Joey Gottesman to continue the legend.

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