A $1,400 Mai Tai is no gimmick

When you open a new upscale hotel, it's understandable that you want to offer something attention-getting. A glorious lobby, phenomenal service, special package deals.

But, a $1,400 Mai Tai at the hotel bar?

The Merchant Hotel in Belfast, Northern Ireland, which opened six months ago and began serving the Mai Tai special just this month, already has applied to the Guinness Book of World Records for recognition as the most expensive cocktail -- without gimmicks -- in the world.

I've previously reported on the proliferation of ludicrously priced drinks in various cities, some going for as high as $10,000, but they all are served with extras such as diamond earrings or jewel-encrusted swizzle sticks.

The reason for the Merchant's Mai Tai price tag is its basic rum component, an ultra-rare bottle of J. Wray Nephew from Jamaica. The 17-year-old distillation went into a mere six bottles of 700ml size, and the Merchant Hotel somehow got hold of one.

General manager Adrian McLaughlin declines to say how his people got the bottle or what they paid for it. He does confirm that it's kept in the hotel safe between drinks.

And just how many drinks has head bartender Sean Muldoon made so far? Only two. Which stands to reason. If you want a pricey cocktail in Ireland for a better price and with add-ons, you can always nip down to the Westin Hotel in Dublin for a "Minted" at a mere $640.

The vanilla and chocolate martini, served at the Westin's Mint Bar, includes vanilla-infused vodka and 200-year-old cognac. Its extras: It includes flakes of 23-carat gold and is served in a designer crystal glass with chocolate truffles on the side.

But, back to the Mai Tai, a Polynesian-sounding drink actually invented in the U.S. It was whipped up in 1944 as the signature drink at Trader Vic's in California by owner Victor Bergeron for his South Seas-style restaurant and bar.

Over the years, other Trader Vic's were started all over the world, known for their South Pacific decor, elaborate drinks menus (the cover of the 1965 edition is shown here) and live entertainment. Some eventually went off under non-Bergeron ownership and the credit for creating the Mai Tai was claimed by many other people.

In 1970, Bergeron, who died in 1984 at the age of 82, got fed up with people laying claim to his drink and wrote the following:

"Many have claimed credit. ... This aggravates my ulcer completely. ... In 1944, after success with several exotic rum drinks, I felt a new drink was needed. I thought about all the really successful drinks; martinis, Manhattans, daiquiris, all basically simple drinks.

"I was at the service bar in my Oakland restaurant. I took down a bottle of 17-year-old rum. It was J. Wray Nephew from Jamaica; surprisingly golden in color, medium bodied, but with the rich pungent flavor particular to the Jamaican blends. The flavor of this great rum wasn't meant to be overpowered with heavy additions of fruit juices and flavorings. I took a fresh lime, added some orange curacao from Holland, a dash of rock candy syrup, and a dollop of French Orgeat, for its subtle almond flavor. A generous amount of shaved ice and vigorous shaking by hand produced the marriage I was after. Half the lime shell went in for color.

"I stuck in a branch of fresh mint and gave two of them to Ham and Carrie Guild, friends from Tahiti, who were there that night. Carrie took one sip and said, 'Mai tai. Roa ae". In Tahitian this means "Out of this world. The best.' Well, that was that. I named the drink Mai Tai."

Today, there are Trader Vic's in places ranging from Dallas to Dhubai. In the U.S. alone, they are in Scottsdale, AZ, Beverly Hills, Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston and Las Vegas, among other places, and abroad they are in such locations as London, Berlin, Tokyo, Shanghai and Beirut. The surfacing of the rare 17-year-old J. Wray Nephew in Northern Ireland brings back a key original ingredient, but any high-quality rum will do in trying to concoct as closely as possible the original 1944 Mai Tai recipe.

It's a fitting homage to the name Trader Vic's, which has popped up in films, books and in such unexpected places as the lyrics for the late Warren Zevon's song "Werewolves of London." To wit, "I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic's. His hair was perfect."

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Ryan J. Rusak said...

William -- sadly, there is no longer a Trader Vic's in Dallas. Victim of the economy, I suppose. We miss it so.

Learn2Serve Bartending Certification said...

Trader Vic's Mai Tai is also really great. I was actually curious about the tale and I'm finding who really did invented the Mai Tai. Some says it was Trader Vic and some says Don the Beachcomber. Something tells me I won't be getting any answers.