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Depending on the bar, a mai tai might be a sweetened blend of orange and pineapple juices with a float of rum, or it might be a tart, lightly sweetened blend of rum and lime juice.

In both scenarios, the drink is presented as a tropical treat, whisking the drinker away to a picture-perfect beach lined with palm trees.

But as many locals know, the very first mai tai wasn’t concocted at a resort or a faraway island, as the cocktail is an Oakland original through and through.

Victor Jules Bergeron, who is perhaps more famously known as “Trader Vic,” created the drink at the original location of his Trader Vic’s bar in 1944, right there on 65th Street and San Pablo Ave.

The original version of a Trader Vic’s mai tai. Courtesy: Trader Vic’s

The Original Mai Tai (recipe courtesy of Trader Vic’s)
· 1 ounce fresh lime juice
· 1/4 ounce rock candy syrup
· 1/2 ounce orgeat
· 3/4 ounce orange curacao
· 2 ounces Trader Vic’s Royal Amber Rum

Shake all ingredients vigorously over crushed ice. Garnish with fresh mint and serve.

Trader Vic’s General Manager, Faith Nebergall, told me the story of the drink’s invention:

“Vic was experimenting behind the bar while he was entertaining some friends that were visiting from Tahiti. He squeezed a fresh lime, added in French orgeat, orange curacao and Jamaican rum before shaking up the ingredients with an ample amount of crushed ice, then topping it off with fresh mint leaves. He served the concoction to his friend Carrie Guild, who took a sip and then promptly exclaimed ‘Mai Tai Roe Ae’, meaning ‘Out of this world’, ‘The best’ in Tahitian, and he named his creation the ‘Mai Tai’.”

Michael Thanos, co-owner of Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge in Alameda, still remembers tasting his very first mai tai at Trader Vic’s: “The first sip of the mai tai just took me to another world. I mean, the flavor profile of that cocktail was something I had honestly never tasted before.”

Before opening Forbidden Island, in 2003 Thanos and his brother opened the now-shuttered Conga Lounge on College Avenue in Rockridge. Well aware of the mai tai’s origin story, Thanos found himself telling every customer that came to the Conga Lounge about the drink’s Oakland history.

A note on tiki culture: in recent years prominent thinkers have started to reexamine the tiki theme’s roots in colonialism and its role in perpetuating stereotypes. Others have called it straight up racist, with the New York Times asking “Can the format be repaired?” in 2020. For more discussion on the role of tiki bars, the Pasifika Project is a great place to start. — Eve Batey

“We really sought out to promote the mai tai as an Oakland original, so we had a big banner that said Oakland: Home of the Mai Tai,” Thanos said. “We discovered that we were literally educating hundreds of people, even people who had been born and raised in the East Bay had no idea!”

In 2009, Thanos and his brother petitioned the Oakland City Council to name the mai tai Oakland’s official cocktail. Although the petition did not pass, the city council officially proclaimed August 30th “mai tai day.”

While the recipe for the original Trader Vic’s mai tai is widely known (Bergeron did not keep it a secret and officially published the recipe in the 1972 revised edition of his book Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide), many bars, including Trader Vic’s, not only offer the original mai tai on their menus but also many creative mai tai spin-offs.

At the Kon-Tiki in Oakland, the mai tai honors the 1944 recipe, but with another East Bay link.

“What makes our [mai tai] different from any other place was the constant R&D to find the best orgeat for us, which just so happens to be from East Bay’s own Super Jugoso,” said Kon-Tiki general manager Tony Martinez.

“We also use a rum-based orange shrubb instead of dry curacao and figured out through trial and error what rum blend suits us. Our rum blend utilizes rums from three different islands helping create a boozy yet easy drinking concoction anyone can enjoy.”

Forbidden Island co-owner Michael Thanos. Credit: Paulina Barrack

The Viking Mai Tai (recipe courtesy of Forbidden Island)
· 2 ounces Svol Danish-style Aquavit
· ½ ounce orange curacao
· 1 ounce fresh lime juice
· ½ ounce orgeat

Flash blend all ingredients and pour over a 50/50 mix of crushed ice and cubed ice. Serve with a fresh mint garnish in a double old-fashioned glass.

At Forbidden Island, their version of the classic mai tai remains on the menu, but Thanos also notes that they have several off-menu versions of the mai tai (such as the Conga Lounge’s mai tai and what he calls an “island mai tai, the kind most people think of when they come from a luau, with pineapple juice and a dark rum float”). In addition, Forbidden Island also features a rumless mai tai using aquavit, a dry, savory liquor produced primarily in Scandinavia.

“We found substituting aquavit for rum creates a nice, very dry version of the mai tai,” Thanos said. “We thought it was sort of the perfect alternative, especially when we get guests who are very explicit that they don’t like rum and are looking for something dry and not sweet.”

The flavors of the mai tai can also be enjoyed without alcohol. At Forbidden Island, guava and orange juices are used to replace the rum, giving the drink a tart and even more tropical palate.

Virgin Mai Tai (recipe courtesy of Forbidden Island)
· 2 ounces guava juice
· 1 ounce lime juice
· ½ ounce orgeat
· ½ ounce orange juice

Flash blend all ingredients and pour over a  50/50 mix of crushed ice and cubed ice. Serve with a fresh mint garnish in a double old-fashioned glass.

For fans of the Hawaiian-style mai tai with fruit juice, Trader Vic’s offers the Maui Tai, their variation on a mai tai that includes lime juice, lemon juice and pineapple juice. Nebergall said that it’s one of their most popular drinks on the menu.

The Maui Tai (recipe courtesy of Trader Vic’s)
· Squeeze of fresh lime
· ½ ounce lemon juice
· ¾ ounce Trader Vic’s orgeat
· 1 ½  ounces pineapple juice
· 2 ounces Trader Vic’s Royal Amber Rum

Shake all ingredients vigorously over crushed ice. Serve with skewered pineapple, cherry, and a fresh mint garnish.

Although there are countless versions of the mai tai in many bars and restaurants today, Trader Vic’s only recognizes Bergeron’s original recipe as a true mai tai and only lists his original recipe as a “mai tai” on their menu.

“While we do serve up a variety of ‘Tropical Tais’ that mimic the mai tai recipe with alternative spirits and tropical fruit purees and juices, we only recognize one recipe that constitutes a ‘mai tai,’” Nebergall said.

Bergeron’s invention in Oakland created a cocktail with endless possibilities. “You can get a mai tai in most bars that offer a cocktail on their menu,” Martinez said. “From award winning bars to chain restaurants, no mai tai will be the same.”

Forbidden Island
1304 Lincoln Ave., Alameda

The Kon-Tiki
347 14th St., Oakland

Trader Vic’s
9 Anchor Dr., Emeryville

Featured image: The mai tai at Forbidden Island. Credit: Paulina Barrack