Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman will comb Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Mai Tai that wasn’t blue — or red, or sunny yellow, or some other technicolor that wasn’t meant to be. The last one I sipped, at a Chinese restaurant in midtown Manhattan, tasted like alcohol, sugar, and sadness.
So imagine my surprise when one day I flipped through a cocktail book and discovered that Mai Tais were supposed to have orgeat syrup — almond-flavored deliciousness that is one of my favorite cocktail ingredients. And two kinds of rum — one even spelled with an “h” as in “rhum!” This was not the carnival-colored cocktail I knew. I began to have a new respect for the genre of drink called “Tiki.”
But what is Tiki? When Tiki comes to mind, I imagine my grandparents’ generation, captured in photos where perhaps one too many tiki drinks had been consumed, looking slightly inappropriate (but very young) in leis and summer short sleeves, laughing at the camera.
Tiki is a Frankenstein combination of influences from the Caribbean, Polynesia, Hawaii and China. During prohibition, alcohol-starved Americans traveled to the Caribbean, experiencing for the first time rum drinks like the Mojito at infamous bars like Sloppy Joe’s. Post-prohibition, the first Tiki bars were opened in California by some of these Caribbean travelers. After World War II, soldiers posted in the Pacific brought back a taste for the exotic, and bars and restaurants began to reflect a luau theme. But the food served in these establishments was often cooked by Chinese immigrants, who served their own Cantonese fare.
Thus developed a sort of pan-Asian fantasy experience that was dubbed Tiki. The Tiki movement was made nationally popular by bars like Trader Vic’s, which opened in Oakland, California, and developed the Mai Tai as its signature drink. Trader Vic’s wanted to offer a beverage “that would be the finest drink we could make, using the finest ingredients we could find.” Trader Vic’s had many copycats: lavish Pacific-island-styled bars that allowed guests to experience an exotic vacation without traveling very far from home.
I wanted to bring a bit of this mid-century cocktail-camp into my own home, and I was tempted to buy some of the amazing tiki glass sets available on Etsy, patterned with beach scenes, bamboo, or a visage of the iconic, angry Tiki god. But I decided instead on accoutrements that would make any drink a little more Tiki: bamboo-patterned paper straws and vintage cocktail umbrellas. Now that’s festive. If I wanted to go whole hog and throw a real vintage luau, it’s easy to hunt down everything from decorations and leis to mid-century tropical bathing suits to complete the look.
But looks are one thing; delivering on the drinks is another. I decided to focus on the Mai Tai, orgeat syrup and all.
Orgeat is almond syrup, and it gives Mai Tais a sweet and nutty base. It’s seldom used in cocktails today because it’s a little complicated to make. There are some commercial versions available, but they’re little more than sugar and almond flavoring. I made orgeat from scratch using the recipe in Jason Wilson’s book Boozehound: a combination of almonds, almond flour, sugar, orange flower water, rose water, and a dash of almond extract. It’s sweet with clear almond notes from the extract, but with a toasted almond taste as well. It’s good in more things than Mai Tais (hot chocolate, for example) and lasts in the fridge over a month.
If you want to get tiki cocktails just right, seek out mid-20th century cocktail books, like those penned by Trader Vic’s. You’ll find his recipe for a Mai Tai blends two kinds of rum with orgeat, orange liqueur and lime. It’s a strong drink with a touch of citrus, served icy cold. I started and finished one while writing this article, and I’m well on my way to summer fun.
1 oz fresh lime juice
1 oz Rhum Clément VSOP Martinique rum
1 oz Appleton Estate Extra dark Jamaican rum
1/2 oz orange Curacao
1/4 oz orgeat syrup
1/4 oz sugar syrup
2 cups crushed ice
Mint for garnish
In your shaker, pour fresh lime juice, Rhum Clément VSOP Martinique rum, and Appleton Estate Extra dark Jamaican rum; add orange Curacao, orgeat syrup and sugar syrup.
Add at least 2 cups of crushed ice, then shake well for around 10 seconds.
Pour unstrained into a double old-fashioned glass. Sink your spent lime shell in the drink, and garnish with a mint sprig.