The Original Mai Tai – A Couple Cooks


Here’s how to make the original Mai Tai recipe! Gather the ingredients for this tropical rum drink that’s as complex as it is fruity.

Mai Tai Recipe

The Mai Tai might sound like a simple fruity resort drink, but it’s anything but! No, this drink is a classic cocktail from the 1940’s that’s been (cough) ruined by saccharine sweet versions. How to make a real Mai Tai? The rum cocktail is breathtakingly complex, featuring aged rum, orange liqueur, and almond syrup for nutty and vanilla notes against sharp citrus. Float a little dark rum on top, and you get to the core of a Mai Tai: it’s sophisticated, nuanced, and might we say…extraordinarily special.

What’s a Mai Tai?

The most widely accepted origin story of the Mai Tai is that the cocktail was invented in 1944 at Trader Vic’s restaurant in Oakland, California. It became very popular in the 1950’s and 60’s, especially at tiki restaurants. (And since Tiki culture is built on appropriation, we won’t exalt the virtues of that phenomenon.)

Full disclosure: we weren’t fans of this drink until we tasted the classic version! The Mai Tai cocktail in its original form just makes sense. It’s tropical, nutty, boozy and zingy: and it’s nothing like the adult fruit juice you might be expecting. (I ordered a Mai tai at a bar recently and it tasted like a Hawaiian punch juice box.)

Mai tai ingredients

Mai Tai ingredients

What’s in the original Mai Tai? Despite what you might think, there’s no pineapple juice! There’s actually no fruit juice, other than lime juice. The classic Mai Tai cocktail is on the list of International Bartender Association’s IBA official cocktails, meaning that it has an “official” definition. The ingredients in a Mai Tai drink are:

The classic Mai Tai ingredients also often include simple syrup. Using a hint of simple syrup accentuates the flavor for a fruity, sweet tart Mai Tai. Omit the simple syrup and it makes a more boozy, spirit-forward drink. I prefer adding simple syrup for the flavor of that classic tropical drink, but Alex prefers the boozier version. Try it both ways and find your favorite!

What is orgeat syrup?

You may have noticed cocktails at bars that include the ingredient orgeat syrup. What is it, and is it absolutely necessary for a Mai Tai?

  • Orgeat syrup is a non-alcoholic almond syrup used for sweetening cocktails. It has a distinctive nutty flavor with a hint of citrus that’s hard to replicate.
  • How do you pronounce orgeat? Say Or-ZHAAT, where the “ZH” is like the J in the name Jacque.
  • What is a substitute for orgeat syrup? There is no substitute for the unique nutty citrus flavor. A Mai Tai without orgeat syrup just doesn’t work. It’s a tasty drink: just not a real Mai Tai.
  • How much does orgeat syrup cost? You can grab a bottle for about $10. It’s easy to find online: here’s the orgeat syrup we have. Use up leftovers with a Japanese Cocktail, Trinidad Sour, or Mojito Mocktail.
Aged rum

Orange liqueur: Grand Marnier vs Curaçao

A Mai Tai recipe traditionally uses orange curaçao, but it can be hard to find. Here are a few notes on what else to use as a substitute for the orange liqueur:

  • Grand Marnier is your best bet. Grand Marnier is the highest end orange liqueur, and brings nuanced, sophisticated flavor. We had a bottle (since we like Grand Marnier cocktails), so we used it here.
  • Cointreau also works. Got a bottle for making margaritas or other Cointreau drinks? You can use it here too. The flavor is a little less nuanced, but it still works!
Mai Tai Recipe

Two types of rum make the best flavor

Many Mai Tai recipes use two types of rum mixed into the drink. Our version takes it a step further and floats the dark rum on top! It makes for a showy presentation and it’s become a tradition that some people like in their version of this drink. Here’s a bit more about the two types of rum you’ll need:

  • Aged rum: This type of rum is also referred to as golden rum, amber rum, or añejo rum (meaning “aged”). Aging gives it a complex flavor, more like a Cognac. It has undertones of vanilla, coconut, almond, citrus, or caramel. The aged rum that we used here was Brugal Añejo Rum.
  • Dark rum: Also known as black rum, dark rum has a dark color and a rich flavor that’s smoky and sweet.

What other cocktails use these types of rums? Use aged rum in an El Presidente or Pineapple Rum Cocktail, and dark rum in a Dark and Stormy or Jungle Bird.

How to make a Mai Tai

So you’ve got your orgeat syrup, stocked up on golden and dark rum, and figured our your orange liqueur. Now it’s time to make a Mai Tai cocktail! This is the easy part: shake it up, then garnish. That’s all there is too it!

  • Shake in a cocktail shakerPlace all ingredients except the dark rum in a cocktail shaker, add ice, and shake.
  • Float the dark rum. Pour the dark rum on top of the drink, and it will settle on in a single layer.
  • Strain into a glass and garnish. Strain the drink into a lowball glass. The traditional garnish is fresh mint and a lime wedge. Many Mai Tai drinks also have pineapple and cocktail cherries as a garnish, so we added that here too: just for kicks!
Mai Tai recipe | Mai tai cocktail

When to serve a Mai Tai

The Mai Tai drink is a festive and fun cocktail, great for parties or impressing guests! It’s great as a:

  • Summer drink
  • Signature drink
  • Cocktail hour drink
  • Party drink
  • Happy hour drink
  • Dinner party drink


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Here’s how to make the original Mai Tai recipe! Gather the ingredients for this tropical rum drink that’s as complex as it is fruity.

  • 1 ½ ounces* aged rum
  • ½ ounce orange liqueur: Curaçao, Cointreau or Grand Marnier
  • ¾ ounce lime juice
  • 1 ounce orgeat syrup
  • ½ teaspoon simple syrup (optional**)
  • ½ ounce dark rum, to float (optional)
  • For serving: Crushed ice or clear ice, fresh mint, cocktail cherry, lime wedge

  1. Place the aged rum, orange liqueur, lime juice, orgeat syrup, and simple syrup (if using**) in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake until cold.
  2. Strain the drink into an ice-filled glass. Top with the dark rum. Garnish with fresh mint, a lime wedge, cocktail cherry and pineapple slice. 


Here’s a link to these fluted lowball glasses.

*To convert to tablespoons, 1 ounce = 2 tablespoons.

**A hint of simple syrup accentuates the flavor for a fruity, sweet tart Mai Tai. Omit it for a more boozy, spirit-forward Mai Tai.

  • Category: Drink
  • Method: Shaken
  • Cuisine: Cocktails
  • Diet: Vegan

Keywords: Mai Tai, Mai Tai Recipe, Mai Tai Ingredients, Mai Tai Drink, Mai Tai Cocktail

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