Here’s how to make a perfect Mai Tai: the quintessential tropical cocktail! It’s strong, tart, refreshing, so flavorful, and one of the best drinks for showcasing high-quality rum.
If you need a fun tropical drink for the summertime that’s always a crowd pleaser, look no further than the Mai Tai! This famous and beloved classic cocktail is in my top 5 favorite drinks because it’s so impressive and tasty, but easy to make! Perfect for summer parties, the beach, or whenever you’re looking for a reason to break into a nice bottle of rum.
Mai Tai quick facts
- Level of difficulty: Easy! The Mai Tai is a straight-forward shaken cocktail anyone can make.
- Number of ingredients: Six.
- Main spirit: Rum.
- Season or occasion: It’s perfect for any occasion that calls for a tropical drink, be that the beach, a summer cookout, or any warm weather get together.
- Type of cocktail: Classic tropical drink.
What is a Mai Tai?
The Mai Tai is one of the most popular modern cocktails, and for good reason: it’s delicious, easy to make, and a great excuse to use your nicer bottles of rum!
Though there’s some debate over the true origin, Victor Bergeron, better known as Trader Vic, claims he created the Mai Tai in 1944 at his Oakland California restaurant with the goal of showing off a 17 year old bottle of Jamaican rum. Allegedly, Trader Vic served his new drink to a Tahitian friend, who exclaimed “Mai Tai-Roa Aé!” which translates to “the best,” after taking a sip. Thus, the Mai Tai was born!
And just to get this out of the way: many refer to the Mai Tai as a “Tiki” drink, but you’ll notice I’m intentionally avoiding this term since it’s a product of cultural appropriation. Moving forward, just replace “Tiki” in your vocabulary with “tropical”.
Ingredients in a Mai Tai
After experimenting for years and much trial and error, I think this is truly the perfect Mai Tai recipe! What sets it apart from all the others is the type of rum used, the homemade orgeat syrup, and the specific ratio of ingredients.
The original Trader Vic Mai Tai recipe combines Caribbean rum with lime juice, orange curaçao, and orgeat almond syrup for a cocktail that’s potent and strikingly tropical without being too sweet. When it comes to making a Mai Tai, there are two super important rules.
1. It’s ALL about the rum! Be sure to use a high quality rum, preferably from the Caribbean. (Keep reading for the best rums to use in a Mai Tai below!)
2. Use only the freshest, highest quality ingredients. Squeeze fresh lime juice, opt for a nice bottle of orange liqueur, and make your own orgeat or get a high quality bottle.
Easy enough, right? And here’s exactly what you need to make it!
- Dark rum (preferably Jamacian)
- Light rum (preferably Rhum Agricole)
- Lime juice
- Orange curaçao
- Half a lime, for garnish
- Mint sprig, for garnish
Tips on choosing a rum
There’s plenty of debate over the best rum to use for a Mai Tai, but one thing we can all agree on is a good Mai Tai requires a high quality rum, preferably from the Caribbean. It’s fun to experiment, but here are my tips for picking the best rum for a Mai Tai!
1. Use Caribbean rum
The Mai Tai is traditionally made with Caribbean rum, which gives it its distinctive tropical and “funky” flavor. Depending on where exactly in the Caribbean the bottle is from though, you’ll get different levels of funkiness and different flavor profiles. Here are some of the most popular rum choices for Mai Tais!
- Jamaican rum: Jamaican rum is known for having funky flavors and aromas, which many describe as intensely ester-y, nutty, and fruity. By far, aged Jamaican rum is the most popular rum for Mai Tais and tropical cocktails in general.
- Rhum Agricole: “Rhum” is the word for rum in French, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Rhum Agricole comes from the French Caribbean. It differs from most rum because it’s made with cane sugar instead of molasses, giving it a more grassy, earthy, and funky herbal flavor. This makes it great for cocktails with a more complex flavor profile.
- Puerto Rican rum: Puerto Rican rum tends to be less funky and more mild in flavor. It often plays a supporting role in cocktails that blend multiple rums since it’s mellower and blends easily with other flavors.
2. Use two different rums
Using two different rums adds more nuance and flavor to a Mai Tai. This is where it’s fun to experiment and see what you like best! That said, a good rule of thumb is to use an aged rum with a light rum. This way you get added complexity from two rums without throwing off the balance of the cocktail.
The best rum combination for Mai Tais
The real secret to a perfect Mai Tai is using a combination of aged Jamaican rum and Rhum Agricole. As far as my specific bottle recommendations, after years of experimenting and talking with my bartenders from all around, I’ve found the best rum combination for a Mai Tai is Appleton Estate 12 Year Old Rare Cask with Trois Rivières Cuvée de L’Ocean.
- Appleton Estate 12 Year Old Rare Cask: an aged Jamaican rum that’s complex, funky, and sweet with notes of banana, molasses, and oak. It’s a popular bottle you should be able to find at most well-stocked liquor stores and costs around $45 for 750ml.
- Trois Rivieres Cuvee de L’Ocean: a white Rhum Agricole that perfectly balances the richer Appleton Estate with its lighter grassy and spicy flavor. It costs about $36 for 750ml, and is unfortunately a bit more elusive since isn’t distributed to every State. If you have trouble finding it, you can substitute it with any Rhum Agricole or a Haitian rum like Barbancourt.
Whenever I’ve used this combination, it always blows people away as soon as they taste it. Seriously — you can’t help but immediately blurt out “WOW!” when you take a sip. Together, they result in a perfectly balanced, complex, super tropical Mai Tai where the rums are the runaway stars of the show.
If you’re just getting into Caribbean rum though and want a more approachable Mai Tai, I recommend using Bacardi 8 year old rum with Appleton Estate 12 Year Old. Excluding the Rhum Agricole will make the Mai Tai mellower and less funky, while still having the distinctive taste of Caribbean rum.
More about orgeat!
Orgeat (pronounced or·zhaat) is a sweet almond-flavored syrup made with almonds, sugar, and orange flower water. It’s an important ingredient in many tropical drinks, but is best known for being a star player in the Mai Tai. You can whip up a homemade orgeat, which is what I recommend, or buy it at a liquor or cocktail specialty store.
- What does orgeat taste like? Nutty, sweet, and complex. Many compare it to liquid marzipan!
- What can I substitute for orgeat? Orgeat is super unique and more multi-dimensional than most cocktail syrups, so it’s difficult to find a perfect substitute. In a pinch though, you can use almond syrup or Amaretto.
- Do you need to refrigerate orgeat? Yes! It’s perishable, and once it’s open you can store it in the fridge for a month.
- What’s the best brand of orgeat? For big brands, my favorites are Liber & Co. and Liquid Alchemist. In my experience though, smaller brands are higher quality, so check out your local cocktail specialty shop to see what they have in stock!
- How can I make orgeat at home? This is my go-to orgeat recipe! It’s delicious and incredibly easy compared to a lot of homemade orgeat recipes out there. I also greatly prefer it to store-bought orgeat — it’s worth the extra effort and is part of what makes this a perfect Mai Tai!
If you want to check out more cocktails that use orgeat, here’s a list of the best cocktails that highlight orgeat as a main ingredient!
What to know about orange curaçao
Orange curaçao is considered to be the “original” orange liqueur. Traditionally, it’s made from dried Laraha orange peels from the island of Curaçao with a base of brandy or cognac, but many curaçaos on the market nowadays have a neutral spirit base and are made with all types of oranges since there aren’t any real regulations.
But what’s the difference between orange curaçao and other orange liqueurs like triple sec, Grand Marnier, Cointreau, and dry curaçao? And what makes orange curaçao the best orange liqueur for Mai Tais? Get the answers below!
Orange curaçao vs other orange liqueurs
- Orange curaçao vs triple sec: There’s actually no legal difference between orange curaçao and triple sec! They’re both used as generic terms for orange liqueur by liqueur producers around the world. However, typically orange curaçao has a brandy, cognac, or sugarcane base, which makes it darker and richer, while triple sec has a neutral spirit base, which makes it lighter in color and taste.
- Orange curaçao vs Grand Marnier: Grand Marnier is a specific brand of curaçao-inspired liqueur, since it has a base of cognac and is darker in color.
- Orange curaçao vs Cointreau: Cointreau is a specific brand of high-quality triple sec. In fact, Cointreau is the first ever registered producer of triple sec! It’s considered a triple sec because it has a neutral spirit base and clear color.
- Orange curaçao vs dry curaçao: Labeling a bottle “dry” curaçao instead of orange curaçao is really just for marketing purposes, and there’s not a true difference between the two aside from most dry curaçaos have a little less sugar.
TLDR: You can use any orange liqueur in place of orange curaçao, but it will change the taste of the cocktail and you’ll get the best results using what the recipe calls for.
Orange curaçao: the best orange liqueur for Mai Tais
You might ask yourself: why is orange curaçao the best orange liqueur for Mai Tais over other orange liqueurs? This is debated, but a traditional orange curaçao is preferable in Mai Tais since they’re a little bit stronger and more tropical tasting than a typical triple sec.
The best orange curaçao brand
As far as the best brand of orange curaçao, you won’t come across better than Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, which costs around $32 and is super easy to find. Its bittersweetness and notes of marzipan work wonderfully with the orgeat, and the orange flavor isn’t over-powering so it blends well in the cocktail. Other good options are Senior Orange Curacao and Giffard Orange Curaçao.
Make an easy Mai Tai pitcher (8 servings)
If you need a tropical drink for a crowd, it’s easy to make a Mai Tai pitcher by increasing the ratio of ingredients. In a single serving, Mai Tais should always be shaken, so the cocktail will come out a little bit different when made in a big batch. That said, it’s still an impressive, delicious drink to serve a crowd!
- 1 1/2 cups dark rum
- 1 1/2 cups light rum
- 3/4 cup lime juice
- 1/2 cup orange curaçao
- 1/2 cup orgeat
Simply add the ingredients to a pitcher and stir until well-mixed. Keep in mind, it’s going to be best served fresh, so it’s better to make it as close to the event as possible and I wouldn’t add the lime juice until right before serving. Whenever you’re ready to serve, just add a small handful of fresh crushed ice to your glasses and you’re ready to party!
If you’re making it ahead of time, leave out the lime juice until right before serving, cover the pitcher in plastic wrap, and you can store it in the fridge for up to 4 days.
Tips on serving
Mai Tais are traditionally served in a highball glass, but ultimately — it’s a fun, tropical drink! So feel free to serve it in a more festive glass that reminds you of lounging on a beach. I personally recommend a wider-mouthed glass so you can get as much aromatics as possible as you’re sipping.
Mai Tais are served with half of a lime and sprig of mint, which represents a desert island with a palm tree. Beyond that, here are a few other popular Mai Tai garnishes.
- Maraschino cherry
- Orange wedge
- Pineapple wedge
- Pineapple leaves
- Cocktail umbrella
These garnishes are great for adding a pop of color and/or an elevating the visual presentation. I personally keep it simple with only the lime and mint because I’m a minimalist and love how it looks like a palm tree on an island, but feel free to get creative 🙂
Use fresh, crushed ice
Trader Vic used crushed ice in the original Mai Tai, and it’s still the best way to present the drink today! The crushed ice will steadily dilute the cocktail while you drink it, which will slowly release new flavors and aromas. You can crush the ice in a blender or food processor, but my own personal crushed ice hack since I’m lazy is just to use a tiny ice cube mold. It has the same appearance and dilutive effect, and is way easier than crushing your own ice!
Variations on the Mai Tai
As with all popular cocktails, there’s no lack of variations on the Mai Tai. Nothing really beats the original in my opinion, but they’re worth trying if you want to mix things up!
- Tia Mia: with mezcal
- Bitter Mai Tai: with Campari
- Rye Tai: with rye whiskey
- Honi Honi: with bourbon
- Pineapple Mai Tai: with pineapple juice
- Monkeypod Mai Tai: with macadamia-nut orgeat and a honey passion fruit foam
- Sparkling Mai Tai: with sparkling wine
How to make a Mai Tai
There are two ways to make a Mai Tai. You can shake all the ingredients together OR you can leave out the dark rum until the end and float it on top of the drink. The dark rum float isn’t necessary and I think this cocktail is more balanced when everything is shaken together, but it does add a fun visual effect!
- Shake the ingredients: Add the rums (leave out the dark rum if doing a float), orange curaçao, orgeat, and lime juice to a shaker with crushed ice and shake for about 15 seconds or until you feel the shaker get nice and cold.
- Pour: Pour the cocktail along with the crushed ice from the shaker into your serving glass.
- For the float (optional): Slowly pour the dark rum over a spoon to make it float on top of the drink.
- Garnish: Garnish with an upside-down lime half and big ol’ sprig of mint to give it the appearance of a palm tree on a desert island.
More tropical drinks
If you’re always looking for a drink that’ll instantly make you feel like you’re lounging on a beach, here are some more tropical cocktails you should try out next!
- For a unique and impressive frozen tropical cocktail, try the Saturn! It sets itself apart from other cocktails in the tropical canon by using a base of gin instead of rum.
- Love coconut rum? Try these 20 easy 2-ingredient coconut rum drinks.
- If you’re a vodka fan, here’s 22 frozen vodka drinks that are perfect for summer.
- Or if you prefer tequila, try these 22 unique frozen margarita recipes!
- 1 1/2 ounces dark rum (preferably Jamacian)
- 1 1/2 ounces light rum (preferably Rhum Agricole)
- 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
- 1/2 ounce orange curaçao
- 1/2 ounce orgeat*
- Half a lime, for garnish
- Mint sprig, for garnish
- Add the rums (leave out the dark rum if you want to float it on top**), orange curaçao, orgeat, and fresh lime juice to a shaker with crushed ice.
- Shake the cocktail for 10-15 seconds, or until you feel the shaker get ice cold.
- Pour the cocktail along with the ice into your serving glass.
- Optional: to do a float, slowly pour the dark rum over a spoon so it floats on top of the drink.
- Garnish with an upside-down lime half and a large sprig of mint to make it look like a palm tree on a desert island.
*Make your own orgeat easily at home with this recipe! It's way better than store-bought orgeat and only takes about 5 minutes to whip up.
**The dark rum float isn't necessary and isn't my preference because I think this cocktail is more balanced when all of the ingredients are shaken together, but it definitely enhances the visual presentation of the drink and is a fun technique!
Nutrition Information:Yield: 1 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 223Total Fat: 0gSaturated Fat: 0gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 0gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 3mgCarbohydrates: 9gFiber: 1gSugar: 3gProtein: 0g