Mai Tai roundup
I 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?