I’ve totally misjudged the Mai Tai. I had chalked it up as a passé tiki cocktail right up there on the cheesiness scale next to dashboard hula girls and plastic leis. In my defense, most Mai Tais I’ve crossed paths with have been pretty shoddy. Often they’re made with a ton of sugary fruit juice, some forgettable rum, and topped with paper umbrellas and maraschino cherries — garnishes that were cool when I was five but not so come happy hour.
That all changed when I began spending more time in Hawaii. While visiting friends and family here during the past few years, I’ve reacquainted myself with the Mai Tai. And here’s the thing, while crappy versions still abound, the best of the best are stellar. From sultry sippers that don’t waver one drop from Trader Vic’s original recipe to orchid-clad versions so redolent of quality aged rum that it’s a drink to linger over, Hawaii has some damn good Mai Tais.
So, I’ve changed my tune. And it’s a tune that goes as such: a fabulous Mai Tai is a drink to be celebrated and perfect for celebrating. Seeing as I’m in Hawaii for a few days to witness the union of two dear friends, a Mai Tai-punctuated toast seems in order.
This version is a sort-of Mai Tai light as it’s tamed with passion fruit juice (look for the 100% juice kind, not the sugary soda-like stuff in most stores), but it is thoroughly Mai Tai in every other respect. And, since I’m staying outside of Honolulu in the suburb of Hawaii Kai – and, let’s be honest, it rhymes well with Mai Tai – I’ve coined it the Hi Kai Mai Tai.
But, if you’re going to try your hand at mixing one of these up, let me stress a few important things. First off, pull out the seriously good rum for this guy because it will make a huge difference. I use a quality Haitian white rum for the light rum and, depending on how spicy I’m feeling, either the spiced Kraken rum or the seriously smooth Zaya (which is amazing on the rocks as a sipping rum too).
Speaking of which, be sure to take the time to float the rum. It’s a technique that’s fallen by the wayside, really highlights the quality of the dark rum, and is a total conversation starter. Though it’s by no means called for, I love to take a few boozy sips with the float intact and then stir it all together to for some Mai Tai magic.
Hi Kai Mai Tai Cocktail Recipe
- Makes: 1 drink
- Total Time: Under 5 minutes
- Hands-On Time: Under 5 minutes
- 2 sprigs fresh mint
- 3 ounces 100% passion fruit juice (no added sugar!)
- 1 ounce great-quality light rum
- 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
- 1/2 ounce premium orange liqueur (such as Grand Marnier or Cointreau)
- 1/4 ounce simple syrup
- 1 ounce great-quality dark rum
Smack a few leaves of mint and drop into a cocktail shaker. Combine passion fruit juice, light rum, lime, orange liqueur, and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker and fill halfway with ice. Strain into a chilled rocks glass, add a few cubes of ice, garnish with remaining mint leaves.
To float the aged rum (see photo below), place the tip of a spoon perpendicular to the inside edge of the glass, turn the curve of the spoon toward the ceiling, and slightly angle the spoon downward. Slowly pour the liquid to be floated down the spoon toward the inside of the glass and, so long as the liquid is less dense than the other liquids in the glass, it will float.