Drink of the month: Mai Tai
As "Sarge" quite rightly asked, if the mojito is passé, what should we be drinking in summer? I offered a few suggestions, but I've said it before and I'll say it again: the Mai Tai is the new mojito. Of course, the Mai Tai is even more unfashionable than the mojito, which naturally makes it ripe for a revival. And what is a tiki bar without Mai Tais? An oxymoron.
But first, some definitions. There's a host of different recipes out there, but the IBA-approved recipe shows that it shares two key ingredients with the mojito: rum and fresh lime juice. From there, it heads in a much richer and more potent direction. Many people assume it to be a long and fruity drink, but as the defenders of the faith at The Search for the Ultimate Mai Tai say: "there's nary a drop of orange or pineapple juice. For this reason, Mai Tais made with any sort of juice (besides lime juice) are not 'true' Mai Tais". But while a Mai Tai may not contain pineapple, the reverse is quite acceptable.
While decorous restraint is now the norm in the field of cocktail garnishes, the Mai Tai is a glorious and outrageous exception. Outlandish permutations of pineapple slices, lime wedges, maraschino cherries, mint sprigs and cocktail parasols, of the sort that would raise sniggers upon other drinks, are de rigeur. Hardcore Mai Tai devotees won't stop at a mere garmish, but insist upon drinking from a large fruit, tiki mug or the skull of an enemy.
But beneath all that frippery there lurks a powerful, serious and quite mysterious cocktail. For alongside the rum and lime, there are (at least) two other essential ingredients: orange curaçao and orgeat syrup. While the original Trader Vic's recipe specifies DeKuyper curaçao, you'll commonly find it made with the less bitter Triple Sec, resulting in a sweeter drink. Orgeat is a little more complex than a simple almond essence, since it's based on almond milk and usually includes a little orange or rosewater, and while dedicated tikiphiles can argue over which brand is best, it seems that the relatively common Monin is quite acceptable. Amaretto is sometimes used as a substitute, but while that will be more than drinkable, purists would frown at the thought. Given that Maitaiholics can even wring a serious discussion out of the most authentic form of sugar syrup, I don't even want to get into an arguments over which rums to use!
So, given the current lamentable absence of a proper tiki bar in this town, where should one seek out the perfect Mai Tai? Imbibe has been flirting with tikitude, and while the last ones I had there had too much lime, I'll certainly be back. Cocktail specialists such as Matterhorn and Motel should be able to deliver strong and serious interpretations, and since both Monsoon Poon and Havana have some form of tropical atmosphere they should be worth a try. The Mighty Mighty's inevitably-named "Mighty Mai Tai" is a shade better than most of their slightly disappointing cocktails, and I have a suspicion that retro cheesefests like Boogie Wonderland and Electric Avenue should be able to deliver on the kitsch factor. Harem lists a Mai Tai among their cocktails, but their description makes it sound far too juicy to be authentic. Despite that, Harem's tradition of getting things deliriously and charmingly wrong makes it worth trying out, if only to see what exotica arrives as a garnish.
So you want an summer drink, and you're not going to join half of Wellington by dressing up outlandishly and drinking tasteless, overpriced beer this weekend, you could do a lot worse than drinking an outlandishly dressed but delicious cocktail.