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The origin of the mai tai

Two stories—and two legendary men—compete for recognition as the drink’s genesis.

Although the mai tai has become as much a symbol of Hawaii as the hula, surfing and Diamond Head, it actually was born in California. That is certain. Beyond that, however, a bit of controversy arises.

One story anoints Donn Beach—a noted chef, world traveler and savvy businessman— as the creator of the world-famous cocktail. Another says the honor should be bestowed on Victor Bergeron, founder of the Trader Vic’s restaurant empire, which now has more than 30 locations around the world, including Beijing, Berlin, Bangkok and Beirut.

Rivals who respected each other’s accomplishments, Beach and Bergeron bickered about the origin of the mai tai for decades, and since both have passed away (Bergeron in 1984; Beach in 1989), the whole truth probably never will be known. The following excerpt from the book “The New-Wave Mai Tai,” available from Watermark Publishing, shares both men’s stories. Who should be given the recognition? You be the judge.

Don the Beachcomber’s story

 

don the beachcomber
Donn Beach, aka Don the Beachcomber.
Photo courtesy: Phoebe Beach

The Original Mai Tai

Into a mixer pour:

1½ oz. Myers’s Plantation rum*

1 oz. Cuban rum

¾ oz. fresh lime juice

1 oz. fresh grapefruit juice

¼ oz. Falernum

½ oz. Cointreau

2 dashes of Angostura bitters

Dash of Pernod

Shell of squeezed lime

1 c. cracked ice (size of a dime)

Shake for one minute at medium speed. Serve in a double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with four sprigs of mint. Add a spear of pineapple.

* Recommended rum substitutions: 1½ oz. Appleton Estate or 1 oz. British Navy-style rum such as Pusser’s or Lamb’s.

*  *  *

Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt was born in Mexia, Texas, but spent much of his early life on his grandfather’s plantation just outside New Orleans. There, he acquired his mother’s passion for cooking and, at her side, learned how to prepare the spicy Cajun food for which the region was known.

As he grew older, Gantt considered the world his home. A charming vagabond, he had a special affinity for warm climes; by 1932, when he was 24 years old, he had already visited Jamaica, the Marquesas, Papua New Guinea, Tahiti and Australia on his own. In December of that year, Gantt took a break from his globe-trotting adventures and landed in Hollywood with a host of priceless experiences under his belt, but very little money in his pockets. Often eating at soup kitchens, he parked cars, bootlegged whiskey, worked at Chinatown restaurants and did other odd jobs to make ends meet.

As luck would have it, Gantt discovered a modest diner called Simon’s Cafeteria that served great meals for only a quarter.

A few down-to-earth movie stars frequented the joint, including David Niven and Marlene Dietrich, whom he befriended. They opened the door to the movie industry for him, and he was hired as a technical adviser on several South Pacific-themed films over the ensuing years, including Hell’s Half Acre (1954). Directors considered Gantt’s knowledge of the region a valuable asset. They also admired his collection of artifacts, which often were used as set props. But this was not what would earn him a place in Hawaiian history.

In 1933, Gantt came across a 13-by-30-foot space on a street off Hollywood Boulevard that had been vacated by a tailor. He envisioned a tropical-themed hideaway filled with happy patrons in that cozy setting. Although there were no guarantees his idea would fly, he signed a five-year lease for $30 per month.

Gantt set up a bar with 30 stools and five small tables with chairs. He combed through his stash of souvenirs from his extensive travels and selected a variety of items— including seashells, wooden tikis, dried blowfish and parts of wrecked boats that he’d found on beaches— to decorate the place. Beside the front door, he hung a driftwood sign upon which was scrawled the words “Don’s Beachcomber.” Its specialties were original tropical drinks and Chinese dishes that appealed to American palates. The cocktail menu, which changed at Gantt’s whim, was handwritten on a board behind the bar.

With Prohibition just repealed, he was free to serve all kinds of libations, most of which were based on the 140 rums from 16 different countries, including Cuba and Haiti, that were stored in his rum cellar at the restaurant. Gantt often went on buying trips to the Caribbean, where he would sample rum after rum and bring back two-year supplies of the ones he liked best. He loved to experiment with flavors and created more than 90 rum drinks in the 1930s and 1940s, among them a robust after-dinner concoction called the Mai Tai Swizzle.

Ironically, this 1933 creation wasn’t his personal favorite, but it was to become his best known. Gantt was as well liked as his drinks, which no doubt was the reason why Don’s Beachcomber quickly became a hangout for Hollywood’s elite. Movie stars and top studio executives stopped by regularly. No one, it seemed, could have just one of Gantt’s irresistible drinks.

 A well-dressed gentleman once sauntered in and sipped a Sumatra Kula. Declaring it the best drink he’d had in a while, he ordered another, then another. He introduced himself as Neil Vanderbilt, a reporter for the New York Tribune, and on his next visit he brought friends with him, including Charlie Chaplin.

By 1937, it was obvious Don’s Beachcomber had outgrown its small space, so Gantt moved it to a larger location in Hollywood and decorated it, like its predecessor, with a plethora of Polynesian kitsch. So much a part of his life had the business become, he legally changed his name to Donn Beach, but thereafter many people knew him by his nickname—Don the Beachcomber.

Travel remained Beach’s other passion. He first visited Hawaii in 1922, and made numerous return trips until he decided to make a permanent move there in 1946. By then, he was known as the premier developer of the “tiki bar” and Polynesian-themed restaurants and nightclubs, and in 1947, he opened Don the Beachcomber— three Polynesian-style longhouses set amid palm and banyan trees— on the property where Macy's now stands on Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki.

Crowds packed the place, the big draws including top entertainers such as pianist Martin Denny, singer Alfred Apaka and hula dancer Iolani Luahine; a casual ambience, complete with Beach’s trademark array of tropical mementos; and an enticing menu of exotic rum drinks and cuisine.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Beach teamed up with architect Pete Wimberly to design and develop the International Market Place on an adjacent parcel. That still-popular shopping and dining complex opened in 1955, with a new Don the Beachcomber perched in the branches of a spreading banyan (the original restaurant was torn down). Beach’s successful Polynesian theme was again evident here in the décor, food and cocktails, including his scintillating Mai Tai Swizzle (he later shortened the drink’s name to Mai Tai).

Many of the rums used for Beach’s concoctions are no longer being made, so substitutions are provided for his Original Mai Tai recipe, printed courtesy of his widow, Phoebe Beach.

Trader Vic’s story

 

trader vic
Victor Jules Bergeron, aka Trader Vic.
Photo courtesy: Peter Seeley

The Original Mai Tai Formula

2 oz. 17-year-old J. Wray Nephew Rum

½ oz. French Garnier Orgeat

½ oz. Holland DeKuyper Orange Curacao

¼ oz. rock candy syrup

Juice of one fresh lime

Hand shake and garnish with half of the lime shell inside the drink. Float a sprig of fresh mint at the edge of the glass.

Present-Day Formula

2 oz. fine dark rum

4 oz. Trader Vic’s Mai Tai Mix

Juice of one large lime

*  *  *

The son of an Oakland grocer, Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr. was destined to find success in the food business. His family lived in an apartment above their store, and from the time he was young, he played a hands-on role in the venture, from stocking shelves and doing inventory to mopping floors and running the cash register. Even at that tender age, Bergeron was a colorful character known for his mischievous deeds and his penchant for storytelling.

When he was about six years old, he fell off the roof of a backyard shed at home and broke his left leg. Reset three times, the leg developed gangrene and had to be amputated, but that never hindered him. In 1932, at the age of 30, Bergeron built a little pub across the street from his family’s store with $700 in savings and carpentry help from his wife Esther’s brothers.

Dubbed Hinky Dinks after the catchy World War I song “Hinky Dinky Parlez Vous,” it was decorated with snowshoes, bear skins and other Eskimo memorabilia. It soon became one of the most popular gathering spots in the Bay Area, known as much for its scampish owner as its nickel beers and hearty 25-cent meals of oxtail stew, roast chicken and lamb cheeks. Esther cooked while Bergeron tended the bar.

In 1934, the couple took a monthlong vacation to Louisiana, Trinidad and Cuba, in part for rest and recreation, in part for research. Interested in finding novel cocktails that could be added to Hinky Dinks’ menu, they sampled hurricanes in New Orleans, rum punch in Port of Spain and daiquiris in Havana.

During their travels, a lightbulb clicked on in Bergeron’s head about how he could reinvent himself and his business. When he returned to California, he checked out South Seas, a new tropical-themed restaurant in San Francisco, and a similar establishment in Los Angeles called Don’s Beachcomber. Inspired by what he saw, he began thinking about how he could add his own unique touch to their models.

First, Bergeron realized the name Hinky Dinks had to go. Because he was always wheeling and dealing, Esther suggested Trader Vic’s. He loved it and even spun a tall tale to go along with the new name. With a straight face, he would tell customers he had lost his leg to a shark while swimming in the Pacific, and for dramatic effect, he’d grab an ice pick and jab it into his peg leg.

Bergeron carried out the new theme with Polynesian food geared for American tastes and a décor of fishing nets, glass floats, rattan furniture, spears and such, some of which was reputedly purchased from Don the Beachcomber. Esteemed San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, a regular guest, paid Trader Vic’s the ultimate compliment in 1936 when he wrote “the best restaurant in San Francisco is in Oakland.”

All the while, Bergeron was having a grand time concocting cocktails that, like Trader Vic’s food and embellishments, stirred up exotic images of Polynesia. Sometime in 1944, he was at the restaurant’s bar and took down a bottle of 17-year old J. Wray Nephew Rum from Jamaica. Knowing the best cocktail recipes often were the simplest ones and that the rum’s intense taste shouldn’t be overpowered with too many flavorings, he added the juice of a lime, a bit of orange curacao from Holland, a splash of French orgeat, a dash of rock candy syrup and plenty of shaved ice.

After vigorously shaking the drink, he poured it into two 15-ounce glasses, garnished each of them with half of the lime shell and a sprig of fresh mint, and served them to Eastham and Carrie Guild, good friends from Tahiti who happened to be in the restaurant that night.

In Bergeron’s words, “Carrie took one sip and said, ‘Mai Tai—Roa Ae!’ In Tahitian this means ‘Out of This World—The Best!’ Well, that was that. I named the drink ‘Mai Tai.’”

The drink was an instant success not only in Oakland, but at Trader Vic’s second location in Seattle, which opened in 1948. Five years later, Bergeron took the mai tai to Hawaii, where Matson Steamship Lines had asked him to create drinks for its Royal Hawaiian, Moana and Surfrider hotels. As the story goes, Bergeron introduced 10 drinks, including the mai tai, at the Royal Hawaiian. It was the hands-down favorite, and within a month, customers were ignoring the other nine.

Mai tai fever caught on, and other local bars started serving their own interpretations of it. Meanwhile, by the early 1960s, Bergeron’s mai tai became the most popular offering not only at Matson’s hotels in Hawaii, but at the 20 Trader Vic’s restaurants in the United States at that time. Over the years, however, the recipe has been adjusted three times due to dwindling availability of its original ingredients.

Trader Vic’s current mai tai recipe includes its own flavoring mix and dark rum—a blend of Jamaican, Martinique and Virgin Island rums that purportedly captures the smooth, nut-like characteristics of the 17-year-old J. Wray Nephew Rum. That recipe is shared along with The Original Formula, courtesy of Trader Vic’s Inc.

A version of this story appeared in the Summer/Fall 2011 print issue of Huakai, a bi-annual publication published by aio Media in partnership with Starwood Properties.