Do you remember Somerset Maugham?
When I say that, what I mean is, do you remember when we talked about how he created the groundwork for the espionage literary genre with his book “Ashenden: The British Agent”, and how in that book, Ashenden ordered Pink Gin aka Gin Pahit?
Well, do me a favor. Go back and read it.
Once you get back, we can talk about how he might also have been a pioneer of a completely different cultural movement as well.
You see, in 1918, after retiring from his British Intelligence career, Somerset took a little vacation to Pago Pago, which is a city on the island of American Samoa, located in the South Pacific. It’s a tiny little island, only about 78 sq miles (slightly bigger than Washington D.C. if that helps anyone imagine it). Anyway, while on the trip, Maugham was taking notes, and beginning to flesh out the beginnings of some short stories, which he would eventually release in a collection entitled “The Trebling of a Leaf”. It had six short stories and two “sketches” that painted a picture of the South Pacific in a way that hadn’t been done before, and is still to this day widely regarded as some of the best writings about that place and time. One of the stories was titled “Miss Thompson”, and after its publishing, was made into a play in 1923 titled “Rain”, and then spawned three separate movies, “Sadie Thompson” (1928), “Rain” (1933), and “Miss Sadie Thompson” (1953).
That 1928 silent film was one of the very first films to be made in the islands of the South Pacific, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last. A whole slew of them would be made in the following years as interest grew in the islands, some which had recently been acquired by the U.S. for it’s strategic location for military purposes.
If you were a lucky devil working in Hollywood around that time, you just might get a chance to go island hopping on MGM’s dime. One of those devils was a young man from New Orleans (though likely born in Texas) named Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt. Ernest grew up in NOLA city proper, the son of a hotel owner. During the Great Depression, Gantt moved out to Los Angeles and did what he could to get by. He worked some jobs in Chinatown, did some freelance bootlegging in the last years before prohibition ended, and in the process, befriended some hollywood stars, who got him some of those coveted jobs in the South Pacific.
Evidently, he was a bit of a collector (read: hoarder), and brought back lots of souvenirs from his travels, as well as gathering little bits of shipwrecks that would wash ashore on the beaches of California. Perhaps an unhappy girlfriend got tired of the random crap he was collecting, because in 1934, Ernest found a vacant building right off Hollywood Boulevard, a few blocks from the Chinese Theater, and turned it into a bar. He unloaded all his chachki into the place, loaded it full of rum and dubbed it “Don’s Beachcomber Cafe”. I have yet to find a good explanation for why he called it that, but over the years, Gannt ended up legally changing his name to Donn Beach and the bar changed it’s name to Don the Beachcomber. It was undoubtedly the very first “tiki” bar ever created.
He also really holds the most legitimate claim as the first person to make a drink bearing the following name, though I’ll explain a caveat to this momentarily. This week, we’re drinking:
THE MAI TAI
It is pretty certain that Donn Beach created the first Mai Tai in the early 1930’s, but what is less certain, is whether a competitor could have also invented a drink with the same name, but different ingredients, more than 10 years later. It’s tough to tell, but it certainly looks like the Mai Tai recipe that a majority of bars would make you today, more resembles the concoction claimed by Victor Bergeron in 1944. The name, Mai Tai, is an adaptation of the tahitian word Maita’i. Which basically translates to “good”, but in various contexts can also mean “the best” or “delicious”. So, considering that the tiki genre of beverages and food was closely tied to influences like that of tahiti, it is possible that same name was used for two different drinks, independent of each other. Victor was the owner of Trader Vic’s, which along with Don the Beachcomber, became the driving forces behind the creation of American Tiki Culture. Part of it had to do with those movies and stories mentioned earlier, and another part had to do with soldiers getting back from the Pacific Theater after WWII, and bringing with them a love for all things polynesian.
Below, I’ll list out both recipes, but the one from Vic is probably the easier and more familar of the two:
TRADER VIC’S MAI TAI
- 1 oz amber Martinique rum
- 1 oz dark Jamaican rum
- 1 oz fresh lime juice
- 1/2 oz orgeat syrup
1/2 oz of Cointreau
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker, shake vigorously and strain into a rocks glass filled with crushed ice. Garnish with fresh mint and/or a lime. You can also float some dark rum on top of the cocktail if you want (hint: you do).
A note on ingredients:
RUMS: Ok, look, I don’t have the inclination to go over the details of what rums you should be using for this, because let’s be honest, you are not likely going to be going out and buying Clement VSOP Amber Martinique, or Smith & Cross Navy Strength Jamaican Rum (which isn’t probably as dark as Vic would have used, but whatever). My point is this: Don’t get hung up on those rum types. If you can use two different rums, that’s great. Try a light and a dark if possible. If not, don’t worry about it, just use 2 oz of whatever you have, preferably dark rum though. Using multiple rums will obviously give the drink complexity, but don’t fuss over it if you don’t have it available. Got it? Good
ORGEAT: This is an almond based syrup. If you don’t have any, and don’t want to buy a bottle for this, I feel you, and got you covered. Here’s how to make a great version of this at home, super easy and cheap.
- 8 oz. (1 cup) Silk brand Almond Milk
- 1/2 cup Sugar
- 1/2 oz. Almond Extract
- 1/2 oz. Orange Blossom Water (optional)
Heat the almond milk just enough to make dissolving the sugar easier (microwave or stovetop). Stir all ingredients until completely dissolved. Will keep several weeks refrigerated. Depending upon the almond extract you may want to use a bit more.
COINTREAU: While this is ideal, any orange liqueur will be fine. Triple Sec, Curacao, Grand Marnier, whatevs.
OK, now we look at Donn’s recipe.
DON THE BEACHCOMBER’S MAI TAI
- 1 oz gold rum
- 1 1/2 oz Meyers’s Jamaican Dark Rum
- 1 oz grapefruit juice
- 3/4 oz lime juice
- 1/2 oz Cointreau
- 1/4 oz falernum
- 6 drops absinthe
- Dash of Angostura bitters
Shake well with crushed ice. Pour unstrained into a tall glass. Garnish with mint sprigs
Different notes on different ingredients:
RUMS: Again with the rums. Same story. Do what you can. Try to use dark rums if possible.
FALERNUM: This is a liqueur that has lots of little spices and citrus elements to it and gets used in various tiki drinks. Do not buy a huge bottle of this just to make this one recipe. Use orgeat if you have it. If not, a little extra Cointreau will be just fine.