Mai Tai

If the only Mai Tai you've ever had was pink, then you've never had a Mai Tai.

Mai Tai Cocktail

Matt Taylor-Gross / Food Styling by Lucy Simon


Perhaps the most well-known Tiki cocktail, the Mai Tai is a true celebration of rum. The pale yellow cocktail topped with a classic rum float elegantly marries citrus flavors with just the right amount of sweetness. While the original recipe for the cocktail, which dates back to the late 1930s, is balanced and delicious, there are a lot of awful versions out there. Looking at the color of the cocktail can help lead you to a good one: “If the only Mai Tais you’ve ever had were pink, you’ve never had a Mai Tai,” warns acclaimed restaurant critic Pete Wells. “The drink is not supposed to look like Hawaiian Punch: When made according to the original recipe, as decided by Trader Vic, it is a darker, almond-flavored variation on the daiquiri.” 

The Mai Tai gets its rich, nutty flavor from orgeat, an essential ingredient in a bartender's arsenal. Orgeat is a sweet cocktail syrup crafted from a base of blanched, ground almonds which are boiled and sweetened with sugar. It is often flavored with citrus or floral essences like rose water and orange extract. It is a flavor-forward cocktail sweetener that adds complexity, but also body and luscious texture to any cocktail. Thicker than simple syrup, orgeat gives the Mai Tai its silky mouthfeel and telltale hint of almond flavor. There are really delicious orgeats on the market, but with a bit of effort, you can even make your own at home. Its most well-known use is certainly the Mai Tai, but add a bit of it in lieu of simple syrup in any cocktail for extra richness and depth.  

Made with the juice of a whole lime and orange Curaçao, the Mai Tai highlights a complex bouquet of citrus. Freshly squeezed lime — yes, it is imperative you use the real stuff for this drink — brings bright acidity that cuts through the sweetness of the rum, orgeat, and sugar. Orange Curaçao, on the other hand, is made with orange peels which impart a much needed hit of bitterness in this cocktail. When making a quality Mai Tai, look toward well-made Curaçao (we're partial to Pierre Ferrand), which, contrary to popular opinion, isn’t blue. “Plenty of bad decisions were made in the ’70s and ’80s, including unspeakable crimes against cocktails,” write Carey Jones and John D. McCarthy. “Toward the top of that list are the era’s troublingly sweet cocktails that make most people associate the word ‘curaçao’ with the word ‘blue.’” If you don't have a bottle of Curaçao handy, Grand Marnier or Cointreau will also add the desired sweet, orange flavor to the drink.

To achieve the signature layered rum float on the Mai Tai the trick is to understand and master gravity. Any rum or spirit whose density is lower — and lighter — than the mixed cocktail below can be floated on top. Simply pour it gently over a spoon into the cocktail to disperse the rum without breaking the surface of the cocktail below. It’s a little tricky, but if you have trouble the first few times, it’s not so bad — you still have a Mai Tai!  


  • 1 ounce dark Jamaican rum

  • 1 ounce white rum

  • 1/4 ounce orgeat

  • 1/2 ounce orange Curaçao or Grand Marnier

  • 3/4 ounce lime juice

  • 1/4 ounce rich simple syrup (2:1 ratio of water to sugar)

  • 2-3 mint leaves (for garnish)

  • 1 lime wedge (for garnish)


  1. Add white rum, Curaçao or Grand Marnie, and orgeat into a shaker with crushed ice. Shake for 10 seconds

  2. Pour mixture into a rocks glass filled with ice.

  3. Float the dark rum over the top by resting a bar spoon over the rocks glass and slowly pouring the dark rum.

  4. Garnish with mint leaves and lime wedge

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