After some sleepless nights, the new, vastly-updated edition of the Elemental Mixology book is shipping now!
Anyone who really knows how to cook will understand this analogy.
A mass of bitters, false bitters and tinctures can be collected very easily and then conspicuously displayed at the bar. A lot of people who don’t know much about the making of drinks will be caught in rapt adoration of the sight. But, such an array is in no way a guarantee of mixological tradition — or even of the simple ability to make a good drink. This lack of correlation is just as real as the lack of correlation between the sight of a deluxe spice rack and any actual cooking skill. People who marvel at a spice rack also marvel at a battery of bitters. I trust that most of my readers are above such silliness.
Though the Mai Tai drink is mentioned in newspapers as early as 1955, the earliest extant recipe for the Mai-Tai is in a letter that ‘Trader Vic’ Bergeron wrote in May of 1956. Someone had written, apparently asking for the recipe for the drink she had encountered while at Bergeron’s Hawaiian establishment. The sole subject of Vic’s reply letter is the Mai Tai drink, but he simply referred to it as “the Mai Tai as served here and at the Royal Hawaiian.” He does not in any way claim the drink as being his own creation in the 1956 letter. Around 1970, Bergeron did forcefully claim to be the drink’s originator, and that he had done so in 1944 using old, traditional rum (17-year old Wray and Nephew Jamaican rum).
I have long suspected that Bergeron was being less than truthful in 1970. I suspect he mentioned a discontinued rum to allege an earlier creation of the drink. I further suspect that he put his own idea of the meaning of the name into the mouths of a couple of ‘white’ American friends to give the name a mythos that made sense to him while supporting his allegations. This couple allegedly spontaneously described the drink in Polynesian language (because they had allegedly in 1944 been visiting Tahiti) as being “mai tai,” and so on, as the oft-repeated-and-uncritically-swallowed story goes.
Because he had such an obvious motive, and because to me his 1970 story claiming creation of the Mai Tai seems both a little too convenient and a little too contrived, I have doubted Vic’s honesty in this matter.
So, I wondered what person or thing named anyting like Mai Tai might have had enough cultural currency in no more than a decade before the earliest known mention of the drink and recipe in 1956.
There are items in newspapers from that period that mention a cat being named Mai Tai and other items about a sailboat named Mai Tai. Both come in the middle of the 1950’s and before the earliest known mention of any drink bearing the same name. To me this suggests the possibility that the cat, the boat and the drink were all named after another Mai Tai.
Mai Tai Sing was a Chinese-American dancer and actress. She was born in Oakland, California and in the late 1940’s was working as a lead dancer at the Forbidden City. She is pictured at center-top in the following photograph.
The Forbidden City was a Chinese-American-owned nightclub that was also a destination for those caught up in the post-war explosion of tiki culture. The place is specifically mentioned in work exploring the contribution of Chinese-American nightclubs to the development of tiki culture.
Further amplifying her exposure at the time, Mai Tai Sing appeared as a dancer in the 1951 movie, the Golden Horde – and played the role of Soo Lee in 1953’s Forbidden (starring Tony Curtis).
All of this puts Mai Tai Sing in the right time and very much in the right place – both geographically and culturally.
After decades of managing nightclubs such as the Rickshaw in San Francisco and Trappers in the Hyatt Waikiki, Mai Tai Sing is now retired. She might be asked by someone if she remembers ever hearing that a drink had been named after her. Of course, it could have been without her ever knowing it.
It should be noted that her given name is Mai, and her married name is Tai Sing. But, in the 1940’s and 1950’s, she was usually presented as “Mai Tai Sing” and a great many people not familiar with Chinese names might have referred to her as “Mai Tai.”
The evidence that the Mai-Tai drink was named after Mai Tai Sing is not conclusive in any way. It is circumstantial, but strongly so. It satisfies the need to show ‘motive, means and opportunity,’ so to speak. I also find it to require less of a leap of faith than to believe the account supplied very late in the day (1970) by someone (‘Trader Vic’) whose ego was clearly involved in getting the public to believe his story of being the drink’s creator (back in 1944, allegedly) instead of Don ‘the Beachcomber,” with whom Vic was was chief participant in a battle between two cranky, old men over past glory.
I suspect that neither of them created the drink. I have a feeling that it was made by some unsung, non-Chinese, bar-tender working in a tiki establishment in the San Francisco Bay area some time between 1949 and 1953. My hunch is that the drink was good enough that it quickly outpaced the moderate and localized fame of its namesake — the beautiful Mai Tai Sing.
Elemental Alumnus Harry Chin has won a ShakeStir flash contest with his Debbie Reynolds Cocktail (yes, it’s a true cocktail)!
Congratulations, Harry! Keep up the good mixing!
New courses and course dates have been added that might be good for travelers:
It has been said (in a thoroughly modern gloss) that the traditional American drink known as the fix is essentially a sour made fancy with pineapple syrup. That simply isn’t true according to historical sources. What is true according to virtually all pre-1920 fixes is that they are short punches always served with ice in them, where the sour is a a short punch not served with ice. That is the irreducible difference between fixes and sours – traditionally-speaking.
Below is a survey of some recipes for fixes that were published before 1920.
Of the ten recipes above, five are plain – being sweetened only with plain sugar. The other five are fancy – with four being at least partially sweetened with flavored syrup and the other with both flavored syrup and liqueur.
Assuming medium-sized lemons or bartender’s lime (Citrus aurantifolia, a.k.a. the Key lime), the sour juice amount ranges from about ¼ fl-oz. (“¼ lemon” or “1 lime”) all the way to about 1 fl-oz. (“juice of one lemon”). The most common amount for the sour juice is about ½ fl-oz., being either the juice of half a medium lemon or about 3 dashes from a bottle with a standard-sized mouth.
Four of the recipes include a slight amount of water suitable for dissolving sugar with. One includes “enough water” to make the drink fill the glassware. Only one explicitly includes a relatively large amount of water. Four of the recipes have no added water as a measured separate ingredient at all.
All ten of the recipes indicate that the drink will be served with ice in it. Eight of them indicate shaved or finely-crushed ice. One indicates cracked ice, and another indicates just “ice.”
The mixing method for most of the above is to stir the drink in the same ice it will be served in – making many pre-1920 fixes essentially the same as many post-1933 swizzles. The method in the last recipe, from 1914, seems most modern in that the drink is shaken and then strained over fresh ice.
Surveying pre-1920 fixes (including many not shown here) for majority opinion, reduced to a minimal set of features, this author finds that fixes are short punches (being made without added, liquid water as a measured ingredient) that are always served with ice in them. Your last Whiskey Sour might have been more of a Whiskey Fix!
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, punches began being published in recipes with less and less added water as a listed ingredient.
Notice that the earlier sources use a full fluid-ounce of water (half a wine-glass), but that the later ones use just enough to dissolve the sugar with. This development led to standard punches often being essentially the same as fixes. I like to call this historical phenomenon the ‘fixification’ of punches.
Notice that in the above source, the fix and the punch have become very similar, being made with at least ½ fl-oz. of sour juice (3 dashes), without any more water than needed to dissolve sugar with, and served in ice with fruity garniture and straw.
It may be tempting to conclude that the main difference in flavor between the two drinks above is that the punch is sweetened with plain sugar where the fix is sweetened with a fancy syrup (pineapple). But, as shown on the previous page, recipes for fixes were also often completely void of any fancy sweetener. In fact, some historical sources regularly made their fixes plain and their punches fancy.
Before the Volstead Act (prohibition in the U.S.A.), swizzles were thought of as an especially Caribbean, crushed ice version of the American cocktail and did not usually contain any juice. This type of drink was not any more immune to the punchification of drinks, in general, than the true cocktail. After the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933, swizzles appear in books as punches generally (with sour juice) – and especially in an additionally-aromatized twist on the form of the old fix, in crushed ice.
Is a fix any less worthy than a sour? Of course it isn’t! Does a fix need pineapple syrup to be good? Of course it doesn’t. My favorite fixes don’t have it. One of the best fixes ever is the serano-accented rye whiskey fix known as the Future Fix — a drink by my friend, Greg Bryson.
Here are some of the ways I like to make my fixes: