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Return of the Mai Tai

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F&W's fabulous Washington, DC correspondent Amanda McClements gave me the idea of hosting a Hawaiian luau on inauguration night. I was thinking of serving a Polynesian-themed tiki cocktail like the Mai Tai but have always found the drink a bit too sweet and fruity. If I was serious about becoming a sophisticated cocktail drinker, could I really get away with serving this? Continuing my 2009 mixology appreciation mission, I called Jennifer Colliau, the trendsetting Bay Area bartender at the Slanted Door and Charles Phan's soon-to-open Chinese restaurant, Heaven's Dog. San Francisco is hot on the heels of NYC's mixology scene and Colliau is leading the chase with her fierce obsession with exceptional ingredients.

Colliau said that the 1944 Trader Vic Mai Tai was actually one of her favorite cocktails. However, for years, she shunned the drink and even refused to serve it at the Slanted Door. A great Mai Tai needs orgeat (almond syrup), and in her opinion there was no good commercial orgeat on the market. The solution: She’d make her own. Colliau’s orgeat is made from real almonds, so it has fat and proteins (unlike commercial varieties made with sugar syrup and almond extract) that add a full-bodied, lush richness to the drink. Colliau started making other elusive pre-Prohibition cocktail ingredients like pineapple gum syrup (which I learned adds viscosity to Pisco punch) and a seasonal raspberry gum syrup, and is distributing them to top Bay Area bartenders through her company Small Hand Foods.

Unfortunately for me, Colliau’s orgeat and other ingredients are available only in the Bay Area (score one for the San Fran cocktail scene). They’re available at Cask, the new artisanal spirits store from the team behind the swanky speakeasy Bourbon & Branch, as well as the Jug Shop. Colliau is hoping to start distributing on the East Coast next year.

Click here for her serious-minded Mai Tai recipe.


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