WellUrban

Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Mai Tai roundup

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Mike's photo of an umbrella sculpture at Hadyn's Tiki Bar partyI was right when I said that the Mai Tai is even more unfashionable than the mojito: how else to explain the barman at Chow who said he hadn't made one in seven years, or the bartender at the Southern Cross who grumped that "in twelve years behind a bar, I've never heard anyone order a Mai Tai"? Of course, the other explanation is that too many of our bar staff are shamefully unfamiliar with one of the world's classic cocktails, one that dates back to 1944.

The other difficulty is that the Mai Tai now lives a double life: while the true Mai Tai is very strong and has no juice but lime juice, it seems that most people think of it as a long, sweet and fruity cocktail, dominated by citrus and pineapple juices and with the merest hint of rum. Not that that's necessarily a bad drink, and Hummingbird's version, for example, involved lots of freshly muddled lime and orange slices and was very tasty. The Mai Tai is the Gareth Farr of cocktails: complex and serious, yet with an outrageously camp alter ego. Maybe we need a specific name to remove the confusion, and call the non-fruity version a "classic Mai Tai" or "Trader Vic's Mai Tai".

The bars I visited fell into four camps: those who made the classic version; those who made fruity ones; those who knew what to do but lacked the ingredients; and those that had no clue whatsoever. In some cases, it was a bit of a lottery, since on my first attempt at Matterhorn I got a bland pineappley concoction, but the second time was perfect.

The good stuff was served up at Mighty Mighty, Plate, Chameleon, Dockside and of course Imbibe. Presentation tended towards the minimal, though the glassware was all over the place: old-fashioned, Martini, highball and hurricane glasses. Special mention goes to Imbibe for not only delivering great flavour but serving it in a pineapple, though that was at a certain Tiki Bar party so on most nights you'll probably get it served in a jam jar.

Of the fruity versions, Hummingbird's was probably the best because of the fresh fruit, and because you could taste the spirits. Monsoon Poon's was similar, but with less flavour. Harem's was predictably eccentric, served in a giant Margarita glass, and included such non-standard ingredients as apricot brandy and grenadine among a fruity smorgasbord of juices. St John's was probably the worst, and despite the bartender's confidence it seemed to be just rum & pineapple juice!

Suprisingly, two of Wellington's better cocktail bars lacked the ingredients. Hawthorn Lounge and Tupelo both had no orgeat, and Tupelo was also out of fresh limes. While not exactly rare, orgeat syrup could be regarded as a specialist ingredient, so its absence can be forgiven. But for a cocktail bar to be out of fresh limes in summer is really a bit of a disaster.

There are a lot of bars around, that while not exactly counting as "cocktail bars", have a cocktail list and a reasonable top shelf, so one might expect them to handle a classic cocktail such as the Mai Tai. In many of these places, the bartenders didn't know how to make one, but with a bit of prompting delivered surprisingly good results. The Southern Cross, Ernesto, Electric Avenue and (surprisingly) Chow all needed some instructions and some substitution of ingredients (Amaretto for orgeat, Cointreau or Grand Marnier for curaçao), but came up with results that, while far from canonical, were very drinkable. Jet and The Last Supper Club are two places with definite pretentions towards cocktail bar status, but the blank stares from inexperienced bartenders were warning signs, so I walked out with my thirst and wallet intact.

My conclusion: Caveat imbibor. If you want a classic Mai Tai, say so. Even specialist cocktail bars cannot be relied upon, and your best bet is to look for a place that not only has it on their menu but lists the correct ingredients. The closest I've come in Wellington to the proper Trader Vic's experience was at Matterhorn, Mighty Mighty and Imbibe, with the last being the only one to combine a serious drink with a playful garnish. But there is hope. After taking my order, one of the Matterhorn bartenders turned to the other and remarked "We've been getting a lot of Mai Tai requests recently". The Mai Tai momentum is building, so can the Tiki Bar revolution be far away?

12 Comments:

At 3:02 PM, February 28, 2007, Anonymous gemma said...

I've never had a cocktail from Harem, but I might have to try one - they sound absolutely ludicrous!

 
At 3:19 PM, February 28, 2007, Blogger Sarge said...

Talking about Tiki bars did you see the Tiki bar DJ booth at the Cuba Carnival?

Made me laugh...

 
At 3:37 PM, February 28, 2007, Anonymous meg said...

I've seen signs around some shop saying that there is a nationwide lime shortage. I've had a little trouble buying them at supermarkets - could explain the lack of limes at Tupelo - although you would think that they'd go out of their way to get them even if they were super expensive.

 
At 5:29 PM, February 28, 2007, Anonymous Simon said...

umm, did anyone get a photo of the Tiki DJ booth? A couple of friends saw it and said it was fantastic!

I've been thinking Tom you may want to investigate using some sort of disguise when on your bibulous tasting missions. Sooner or later the bar staff [notoriously incestual in their relationships so I hear..] will be on to you and while it may mean you get treated like Des Brittan when you walk into a bar, it may just mean they do horrible things to your drinks….Like using Carthews Gin….. I would have suggested a fake moustache but it didn’t seem very appropriate.

 
At 8:46 AM, March 01, 2007, Blogger Hadyn said...

The tiki DJ booth was awesome but didn't have the right kind of music pumping out of it when we passed. I did like how you could only see the top of the DJ's head though.

I've also had a Maitai at Matterhorn recently which was excellent and got a raised eyebrow from the bartender.

@Gemma: You have to try the Grand Sultan (I think that's what it's called). Very spectacular.

Tom: I think you got your link to the Tiki party wrong.

and finally..."The Mai Tai momentum is building, so can the Tiki Bar revolution be far away?"
If you'll excuse my language, I certainly fuckin' hope not!

 
At 8:52 AM, March 01, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Yes, I saw the Tiki booth: I hope that it's still around somewhere! I didn't get a photo of it myself, but I'll look through Flickr.

 
At 10:03 AM, March 01, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Thanks, Hadyn: the link is now fixed.

I think Harem's signature drink is called the "Sultan's Passion". Oo-er!

And by "tiki bar revolution", all I meant was "Wellington finally getting a permanent tiki bar, with proper decor, the right music and excellent cocktails".

 
At 10:50 AM, March 01, 2007, Blogger Jo Hubris said...

Ooooh Hadyn, getting fiesty! Is it going to be tiki torches at dawn?

I think everything should be served in a pineapple. In fact, that'd help to stop the dirty looks I get for having takeout coffee every day when we've switched to govt3 waste guidelines at work.

 
At 1:15 PM, March 01, 2007, Blogger Hadyn said...

Sorry, all I meant was I hope the tiki bar revolution isn't too far away.

And how do takeaway coffees violate the govt3 guideleines, surely you can recycle paper cups?

 
At 3:45 PM, March 01, 2007, Blogger Jo Hubris said...

Not waxed ones.

Not that we've actually had our recycling bins installed yet anyway, but that's beside the point...

 
At 4:08 PM, March 01, 2007, Anonymous ange said...

I've found the lime shortage in Wellington really distressing - the margarita being my favourite summer cocktail. I had assumed it was something to do with the faddish popularity of the mohito. I see finally some tahitian limes appearing in Moore Wilsons but really, there should be some kind of inquisition!

 
At 3:35 PM, March 02, 2007, Blogger stephen said...

How will we have caipirinhas if there are no limes? Disaster! My drinking life will be crippled.

"The Mai Tai momentum is building, so can the Tiki Bar revolution be far away?"

Perhaps, Tom, you're leading the revolution? Pick something really odd for next time, and then we'll see if it catches on.

 

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