Don the Beachcomber, Trader Vic & Tommy Bahama duke it out!
Mai tai tasting is the subject of today’s blog. Join me on an imaginary visit to a tropical island! And along the way, we’ll compete the giants of tiki cocktails to find the best mai tai.
Where the Mai Tai Fits
The creation of alcoholic beverages is one of humankind’s oldest biotechnologies, dating back 9,000 years. And the Mai Tai is an illustrious contemporary member of the booze family. We discussed its features and history in an earlier blog.
Where does the mai tai sit with respect to other alcoholic beverages? I consulted a list of the world’s most popular cocktails. Then I selected a dozen of the top twenty, added wine and beer, and computed their alcoholic strength. Finally, the table below shows the results, sorted by proof, defined as twice alcohol by volume (ABV):
|“Top 20” Beverages||Proof||ABV %|
|Manhattan, Old Fashioned||65||32.5|
|Margarita, Mai Tai||48||24|
|Mojito, Whiskey Sour||42||21|
The Middle Six Cocktails
If you glance at this list, you’ll note that the drinks near the top of the list are served in smaller portions, whereas those at the bottom are presented in 6 to 16 ounce portions. Therefore, apart from your taste preferences, if you’re feeling thirsty that might direct your attention toward the bottom of the list.
We see that six of the most popular cocktails have proof of 42 to 48 (ABV 21% to 24%). They occupy a middle position between beer and wine at one extreme, and martinis and their ilk at the other. These midpoint cocktails attempt to satisfy both thirst and a desire for flavor, while providing some buzz from alcohol.
What distinguishes these six from one another?
- The liquor: Three are rum-based: mai tai, daiquiri, mojito. The rest use other liquors (margarita – tequila; gimlet – gin or vodka; and whiskey sour).
- The flavors: Three have liquor, citrus and sugar and no other flavorings: margarita, daiquiri, gimlet. (OK, the margarita gets some orange flavoring from the triple sec, but that’s just more citrus.) The other three beverages have distinctive flavor ingredients: mint for the mojito and egg white for the whiskey sour.
- Last of all, what about the mai tai? Of the three recipes we will test, one uses falernum and Pernod, imparting licorice-like flavors; the others use orgeat, an almond syrup. Either way, the mai tai follows a different flavor path than the other cocktails of similar proof.
A Mai Tai Tasting
In an earlier blog I described a blind tasting of modest-priced sparkling rosé wines. We staged the event for entertainment and socialization, not as a formal display of our oenological skills. And it was so successful that this month, our family group embraced the idea of conducting a mai tai tasting with similar goals.
Our mai tai tasting did not compare mai tais made by different bartenders, nor those using different exotic rums. Instead, it focused on the most famous three competing mai tai recipes: those credited to Don the Beachcomber, Trader Vic Bergeron and Tommy Bahama (“purveyor of the island lifestyle”). Yeah, I know, Tommy doesn’t really exist, but there are mai tai recipes with his name on them anyway, featuring orange and pineapple juices.
As mentioned in my previous Mai Tai blog, Don and Vic were vigorous competitors and closely guarded their bar recipes. Moreover, the earliest recipes specify exotic rums that are not at your neighborhood store and in fact may no longer exist. Therefore, our approach will be to use the most authentic recipes we can find, but fulfill those recipes using rums and other ingredients that are readily available in the US. To be specific and for your possible use, attached HERE are the baseline recipes we compared in the mai tai tasting.
To guide the mai tai tasting plan, we considered what inquiring minds might demand to know about the mai tai:
- How do the recipes (Don, Vic, Tommy) compare in delivering an enjoyable experience?
- How well do the recipes sustain their flavor and fascination as the ice melts and dilutes them?
- Is bottled lime juice sufficient, or are freshly squeezed limes worth the effort?
- Is commercial orgeat (almond) syrup adequate, or is it worthwhile to use a premium product that may be difficult to find, expensive, and require refrigeration?
These goals led to the following schedule of events:
- Round One: To taste and score six mai tai samples. The first three (1A, 2A, 3A) are full strength versions of the three recipes, randomly ordered. And the second three (1B, 2B, 3B) are identical, but diluted with water to 75% strength. Thus, the A group simulates the first sip of the drink; the B group represents the last bit of the drink, after some ice melt.
- Round Two: For a particular recipe (Trader Vic in this case), to compare drinks with different lime juices (bottled or fresh-squeezed) and different orgeats (commercial or premium). The samples 4, 5, 6 and 7, randomly ordered, test the four possible combinations of these choices.
- Melange Round: Casual quaffing. Available for drinking: a pitcher of a popular recipe; and the remaining samples of the 10 tested mixtures, all sloshed together. There’s no scoring here, the goal is to remain vertical.
Standardizing the Mixtures
When we studied the recipes, a problem was immediately evident: the mai tai recipes as written yield mixtures of widely different calorie and alcoholic content. In particular, here’s what’s in a fluid ounce of each:
- Don’s recipe: 40.4 calories, 17.5% ABV
- Vic’s recipe: 57.0 calories, 29% ABV
- Tommy’s recipe: 50.8 calories, 23% ABV
Our bodies are conditioned to react in predictable ways to food energy and alcoholic content. Therefore, these major differences (41% in calories, 66% in alcohol) are likely to distract us from tasting the actual ingredients.
Fortunately, there was an easy way out of this pickle. In social settings mai tais are served with ice. And then the ice dilutes the drink depending on various factors, including how slowly the drinker sips. Thus melted ice (water) is an unavoidable addition to any mai tai. Accordingly, we adjusted the water content of each recipe to bring them into caloric and alcoholic synchronization. Specifically, in the recipes given above, we changed the water in Don from 2 ounces to 0.15 ounce; we added 1.15 ounces of water to Vic; and left Tommy unchanged. This led to these adjusted numbers per fluid ounce:
- Adjusted Don: 51.9 calories, 22.5% ABV
- Adjusted Vic: 48.0 calories, 24.5% ABV
- And: Adjusted Tommy: 50.8 calories, 23% ABV
Of course, these are not identical: we are trying to adjust two independent numbers but we only have one knob to turn. However, these numbers are less than 6% apart, which is a huge improvement over the initial differences. (Besides, sometimes we scientists consider differences less than 10% as insignificant, as they are lost in rounding off.)
Choice of Ingredients
As mentioned above, this tasting purposely used ingredients that are readily available in the US. Here are the brands I selected:
- Dark Rum: Myers
- Amber Rum: Mount Gay
- White Rum: Bacardi
- Triple Sec: Arrow
- Falernum Syrup: Fee Brothers
- Orange Curaçao: Bols
- Sugar Syrup: Collins Simple Syrup
- Pernod: 80 proof
- Angostura bitters
- Grapefruit juice: squeezed from Trader Joe’s grapefruit
- Orange juice: Trader Joe’s Organic
- Pineapple juice: Dole
And for the Round Two variants:
- Lime juice bottled: Santa Cruz Organic
- Lime juice fresh squeezed: Trader Joe’s organic limes
- Orgeat Syrup commercial: Torani
- Orgeat Syrup premium: Liber & Co
To maintain the standardization of the mixtures we served them for tasting without ice. Each taster was free to add ice as they chose. However, because these drinks taste best when cold, I prepared the mixtures the night before and refrigerated them. I filled ten 16-ounce bottles with mai tai mixtures and covered the identifying labels. Daughter Dana, who had not seen the mixing process, randomized the bottles and I then assigned the numbered labels.
Also, I acquired a supply of 2-ounce clear plastic cups and labeled a set of ten for each taster: 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, 3A, 3B, 4, 5, 6 and 7.
Some tasters like structure, so we provided score sheets modeled on wine tasting, with places to comment on clarity/color, aroma, first taste, aftertaste, overall impression, and consistency between A (full strength) and B (diluted) versions. Some tasters ignored the sheets and simply decided what they liked or disliked.
Tasting – Round One
Our mai tai tasting participants were ten extended family members ranging in age from 20 to 80. Becca and Reimer provided a long dining table as venue, and other participants brought appetizers and desserts, which guests sampled ad lib.
For Round One we gave tasters score sheets, pens and sets of tasting cups. There were coffee beans to clear the nose, plain crackers to clear the palate and spring water. After this preparation, we passed around the 1A through 3B bottles for each taster to pour samples into his or her similarly numbered cups.
After all had decided their likes and dislikes, we distributed colored adhesive dots to the tasters. Each received sheets of green, yellow, red and blue dots. Then we passed each bottle around the table and the tasters applied colored dots as the spirit moved them:
- Green: I especially like this one. Mmm.
- Yellow: This one is OK. Meh.
- Red: I don’t care for this one. Yuck. Eew.
- and Blue: This one seems to keep its appeal/flavor fairly well even when diluted.
Tasting – Round Two
I had expected the tasters to want a break from their toil, but a poll of the group showed a desire to press forward. Consequently, we proceeded right into Round Two. We distributed the Round Two scoresheets and tasting cups numbered 4, 5, 6, 7. Once again, our group rendered a judgment on what they liked by placing red-yellow-green labels on the bottles. Finally, we revealed the identity of each mix.
Mai Tai Tasting Results
Do you the reader care about the tasting results? Probably, not very much. After all, this wasn’t a scientific tasting, it was more an excuse to have a party.
However, if you hold a similar event for your own friends, you’ll find them interested to see where they agree and where they disagree with their compatriots, and how well their assumptions fare when blind-tested.
In any case, here’s what the colored dots revealed:
|Number of colored dots:|
|1A||VIC||Vic, full strength||8||1||0||3|
|2A||TOMMY||Tommy, full strength||2||8||0||3|
|3A||DON||Don, full strength||0||3||6||0|
|ROUND 2||Reveal||Lime/Orgeat Option:|
Interpretation, Round One
As the table above shows, our group showed a clear preference for the Trader Vic recipe. However, Tommy Bahama was rated just OK. And Don the Beachcomber came in last.
Don’s recipe is notable for including two anise-like flavors, from the falernum and the Pernod. I happen to know that two members of our group don’t like licorice, and two others are fond of it. Despite that equality of pros and cons, overall the falernum/Pernod recipe did not score well.
What about consistency of taste from start to finish, that is, the blue dots? Vic and Tommy each received three blue dots for consistency. However, at least one taster remarked that the B mixtures tasted, well, diluted. Therefore, these recipes do not completely succeed in achieving consistent appeal throughout the quaff.
Interpretation, Round Two
Round Two gave some very interesting data. The table shows seven green dots for the combination of fresh-squeezed juice and premium orgeat! It certainly appears that extra trouble and expense pays off in drinker appreciation.
But what are those three red dots? Some of our tasters really really don’t like this combination of ingredients! What is a bartender to do if 70% of the customers love a drink but 30% of them hate it?
Comments by the tasters give us a clue. At least two of them found the almond flavor too strong in the versions that featured the premium orgeat. That reaction suggests that the recipe might achieve a higher score if we scaled back the quantity of orgeat. That is, is there some quantity of orgeat that will capture a higher rating from the Red voters, without losing the love of the Green voters? Or is it a love-and-hate situation in which there is no quantity of premium orgeat that will satisfy everyone?
You can see that there is an opportunity for another tasting party: to taste and compare mai tais that differ only in the amount of premium orgeat in the mixture!
Comparing the Orgeats
However, I am impatient and I didn’t want to wait for the next tasting. So I conducted a quick experiment.
I am not a supertaster, so my findings would need confirmation by a group of testers. But in any case, here is my followup study on the orgeats:
Into four ramekins I put four samples: the commercial Torani orgeat; the premium Liber orgeat; the Liber diluted with half as much water; and the Liber diluted with an equal amount of water.
First of all, I noticed that the commercial orgeat is very uniform, but the premium orgeat settles out and must be shaken just before decanting to obtain a consistent sample.
I proceeded to taste the four samples, clearing my mouth with water between tastes. My best determination was that the 2:1 mix of Liber orgeat to water comes closest to matching the almond intensity of the Torino orgeat. That suggests reducing the orgeat allocation in the Trader Vic recipe from ¾ ounce to ½ ounce, to see whether the result gains more applause.
The attached Mai Tai Consensus recipe summarizes the outcome of this analysis, representing a Consensus of “me.” (Your results may differ…)
Critiquing the Orgeat Portion
The foregoing experiment helps, but there’s a bit more we can do to achieve the crystal light of understanding. We can examine the recipes.
Liber & Co offer their own mai tai recipe. As you might expect from a company that sells the product, their recipe is very strong on the orgeat. Their recipe for 4.25 ounces of mai tai includes a hefty 0.75 ounces of Liber orgeat: 17.6% of the total!
How does this compare with the Trader Vic recipes? In the original recipe previously presented, the orgeat was 12.2% of the mixture. And in the “adjusted” recipe (watered to match the other recipes in alcohol and calories), the orgeat portion is 10.3%. If we were to scale back the orgeat by one-third, the recipe version would have 8.5% orgeat, and the “adjusted” version only 7.1%.
I conclude that for a substantial portion of this group of tasters, we used too much of the Liber orgeat. On the other hand, folks who really take to the almond flavor might love it! As noted, more research (in the form of a party) is justified…
However, we’re not done examining the data from the Round Two colored stickers.
The Base option (bottled and commercial) is “OK” with practically everyone. Evidently, being lazy with the ingredients is safe and will earn you few demerits.
However, now look at what happens when you modify the Base with just one change: Using fresh-squeezed juice earns you two green dots but four of the yellow dots turn red! Using premium orgeat earns you four green dots, but also four red ones! Evidently there are strong differences in personal taste preference among this group.
As a result, we conclude that the Base version is safe to offer your guests. However, once you try to improve it, you are walking on thin ice: whatever you do may earn you some plaudits, but also some enemies. Once again, more research would not hurt!
As my friend Jim Blue used to say, this blog has been like the book about elephants: it tells you more than you wanted to know. In current speak, TMI. But I hope you gained vicarious enjoyment from this tasting adventure, and perhaps you have a new and improved recipe to try.
Do you have opinions on Mai Tai recipes, or Tiki drinks in general? Please share your knowledge in the comments for the benefit of other readers. And – à votre santé! (However you say that in Tahitian.)
– Tiki glass from barproducts.com
– Other photos courtesy of Dana Bell, Nola Chester, Stephanie Tyler, Lindsay Tyler and Jamie Wire