A staple on beach bar menus, the Mai Tai is steeped in tiki culture and history. This “Daiquiri with benefits” is a true tropical cocktail classic, and it all boils down to three key ingredients: rum, sugar, and lime. But getting it right is harder than it might seem.
In this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy sits down with Brian Miller, a tiki and tropical drinks enthusiast with an impressive bartending resume. Miller shares some of his secrets for making a killer Mai Tai, from choosing the best ingredients, to techniques for shaking and garnishing, and everything in between.
Tune in to learn how to make the perfect Mai Tai.
Brian Miller’s Mai Tai Recipe
- 1 lime shell
- ¾ ounce fresh lime juice
- ¾ ounce orgeat (Orgeat Works)
- ½ ounce Grand Marnier Louis Alexandre
- ½ ounce El Dorado 15 year rum
- ½ ounce Neisson 52.5% ABV rhum
- ½ ounce Hampden Estate 46% rum
- ½ ounce Plantation Jamaica 2005 rum
- Drop lime shell in shaker without pinching.
- Add all ingredients and four Kold Draft cubes. Shake until cold.
- Dump into a Roly Poly (or Double Old Fashioned) glass. Top with crushed ice.
- Garnish with mint sprigs, an orchid, and a skull swizzle stick.
Check Out The Conversation Here
Tim McKirdy: This is “Cocktail College.” I’m Tim McKirdy. Brian Miller, thank you so much for joining us today and welcome to the show.
Brian Miller: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
T: It’s really great to be here with you. I’m going to start you off with a question before we begin: When is a Mai Tai not a Mai Tai?
B: I feel like there’s a punchline coming, so I’ll let you tell me.
T: When it’s on the $1 menu at Applebee’s, of course.
B: That’s true. I don’t remember the last time I was in an Applebee’s, but I’ll take your word for it.
T: There’s a famous quote about this drink and I’ve forgotten who said or wrote it, so I apologize. But they said, “The Mai Tai is the most bastardized cocktail of all time.” Would you say that’s true, and what makes a bona fide Mai Tai for you?
B: That’s a loaded question, because there’s probably fans of many other drinks out there that have gotten really bad versions. I can think of a bad Sazerac that I had. That was pretty much a hate crime. A Mai Tai to me is essentially a Daiquiri with benefits. It’s rum, lime, sugar — or the sugar is orgeat — and it’s got a little bit of Orange Curaçao added to it. That’s it. You can play around with your shot, the Orange Curaçao, the rum blend, and stuff like that, but that’s it. It’s pretty much rum, lime, and sugar. For a lot of tropical drinks, that’s the trifecta, and then you get to switch things in and out.
The History of the Mai Tai
T: In terms of the Mai Tai being in that tropical tiki realm, it has a lot of backstory behind it. There are some major characters when it comes to the tale of the Mai Tai. So I was wondering if you could provide us with a foundation here and introduce us to two of those, right?
B: To be fair, I’m not an expert. I’m the fan that goes to the sports stadium with their face painted and screams for the entire game. But, there was a time when it was argued whether it was Trader Vic or Don the Beachcomber who created the Mai Tai. Trader Vic was a fan of Don the Beachcomber and Don the Beachcomber was the godfather of tiki or tropical cocktails. Don started it at all, and Vic was a fan. Vic was known as the rope hanger. He was the guy that was hanging outside of Don’s place on McCadden Place and wanted to go in. He went in and had the Q.B. Cooler. I really love the drink. The Q.B. Cooler is a mix of rum and lime. I think it’s got honey syrup in it. He went back to his place and was trying to recreate that drink. He was with some friends that were from Tahiti, as legend goes. He came up with the Mai Tai. The name comes from “Maita’i roa a’e,” which simply means, “the best.” That became the name of the drink. The only thing the Mai Tai and the Q.B. Cooler have in common are rum and lime. That’s pretty much it.
T: Which are two of that trifecta that you were talking about.
B: It’s two of the trifecta. I think part of the argument is that Don had another drink called the Mai Tai Swizzle. With the Mai Tai Swizzle, the Q.B. Cooler, and the Mai Tai, you’ve got three completely different drinks. Somewhere in between all those drinks —
T: It’s like a Venn diagram.
T: If all three of them overlap somewhere in the middle you have this drink that, today, is recognized as the Mai Tai.
B: It’s a fantastic drink. Any bar that’s trying to do tropical drinks has to have that. If you’re opening a tiki bar or a tropical bar, you’ve got to have a Mai Tai actually on the menu. When I had The Polynesian, which was my bar on 42nd Street, I didn’t put a Mai Tai on the original menu, and people got really upset. They always asked, “Can you guys make a Mai Tai?” I would say, “Yeah, I can make a Mai Tai. It’s a tiki bar, of course I can make a Mai Tai.” They’d say, “Well, how come it’s not on the menu?” I’d say, “Dude, when you go to Death & Company, do you ask if they know how to make a Manhattan? No, you just assume they know how to make it. It’s a Manhattan. It’s a classic cocktail.”
T: That delves into something that one of our previous recent guests was talking about with us, which was about the Martini. I think you could say the same thing that you’re saying about the Manhattan, which is that, ultimately, this is one of these drinks that you’re going to be judged on, whether it’s on your menu or not. Going into the tropical realm, maybe it does make a little bit more sense that you would have that stake in the ground to say, “This is our Mai Tai.” It’s obvious that you know how to make it, but maybe some people need to be reminded of that.
B: Yeah. Sometimes, when it comes to menu design, you have to put things on the menu that people actually recognize. That helps pull them in. Especially in the tiki and tropical world, if you have a Mai Tai on the menu, that pulls them in. If they drink your version of it and like it, they’ll probably be more open to ordering the other creations you have or other classics you have on the menu. It’s a welcome mat. In the beginning, I put a Piña Colada on my menu. It’s not necessarily considered a tiki drink. It’s a tropical drink from Puerto Rico, but it’s a drink that people recognize. When you’re creating a menu like that, it’s not about ego. Just give them a Mai Tai or a Piña Colada if that’s what they recognize, and make the best one you possibly can.
Perfecting the Mai Tai Ingredients
T: I want to hear about your Mai Tai, and we’re going to get into that. Before we do, let’s break the ingredients down bit by bit. List them for us again. Let’s start with the rum.
B: You start with rum, then you have lime juice, then orgeat. I think the original recipe had rock candy in it, which is another type of sweetener. You also have Orange Curaçao. Shake it, dump it into a glass, and top it with crushed ice, mint sprigs, and anything else you feel like throwing on top of it.
T: There we go. So, let’s dial into that rum first. What are our considerations here? What should be front of mind when we’re looking at this base spirit?
B: Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, who is the Indiana Jones of tiki culture, has several books out there. None of us would know anything about tiki if it wasn’t for Beachbum Berry, to be honest. From there, the super nerds jump into Trader Vic, Don the Beachcomber, Stephen Crane, and so on. The rum blend originally in Bum’s book was an ounce of Jamaican and an ounce of Martinique rum. Martinique rum is sugar cane juice rum, which is very different from molasses-based rum. It’s almost like the peated Scotch of rum. It’s an acquired taste, and not everybody likes it. I’ve done the whole Don the Beachcomber thing, which is, “What one rum can’t do, three rums can.” You start to create these blends. Originally, I think it was a 27-year-old Wray & Nephew. The only place on Earth that I recall that actually had a bottle was The Merchant bar in Belfast.
T: 27-year-old Wray & Nephew. That’s typically an unaged rum, is it not?
B: From what we know. Wray & Nephew is now 125 proof.
T: So, this blend of rums is three rums. You’re talking about incredibly complex ingredients. You talk about rhum agricole being the peated whiskey of rum, but then you also have pot still rum, which itself has this incredible character. Are they not at odds?
B: No. They work really well together, to be honest. I’ve made my own Mai Tai blend, and there have definitely been nights where I’ve sat down with friends at the end of a shift and just put that bottle on a table. We just sit there and drink that all night long and tell lies. They definitely work together. Through time, playing with different rums, and having different exposure to things, my Mai Tai has definitely evolved over the years to the point where I’m pretty OK with what I have now. I make a palatable Mai Tai that I think most people would like. I take the initial recipe of a Jamaican rum and a Martinique rum and divvy it up. For the Jamaican, I use a half ounce of the Plantation 2005 vintage, which I really like. I was using the 2002, of course, then that ran out. Honestly, the 2005 is better than 2002.
T: I’m a big fan of that as well.
B: Yeah. Alexander is doing great things at Plantation. Then, Hampden comes into the equation. I use half an ounce of the Hampden 86 proof. For the Martinique, I’m a big La Favorite and Neisson fan, thanks to Ed Hamilton, the minister of rum. I use the neat Neisson 52.5, the 105 proof. I have played around with the 130 proof, which I like, but my friends told me, “You’re going to kill people with this.” So, I went down to the 105 instead of 130.
T: That’s very nice of you.
B: I try. I’m a people pleaser. This is where things change a little bit. I go to Christmas parties with Adam Kolesar, who is the owner of Orgeat Works, which makes my favorite orgeat. I always use that. Adam and I used to love to play with things. We’d make Zombies by shaking them and using them in a Hamilton Beach blender. Adam talked about how there was a woodiness that you got that, as he recalled, came from the 27-year-old Wray & Nephew. I’m not sure how he came to that conclusion. I thought, If he had the 27-year-old rum, why isn’t he sharing this with me? We started making Mai Tais with El Dorado. I use the 15 year in mine. It has a great mouthfeel and that woodiness to it. It’s the blend of those four rums. Like I said before, I’ve gotten pretty stinking drunk, just sitting with friends and talking and talking over that bottle of my Mai Tai blend.
T: What three rums can’t do, four certainly can.
B: Yeah, On Tiki Mondays, we used to say, “What two ounces of rum can do, eight ounces can do better.” We don’t overload the Mai Tai, but using that blend, I think, really works. When I first started making tiki drinks, I didn’t have anything to really judge myself against because a lot of these rums are extinct and we don’t exactly know what they tasted like. The first time I went to Smuggler’s Cove and I had a Zombie at Martin Cate’s place, I thought, “Cool, I’m on the same page.” Mine was similar to Martin’s and Martin is a well-respected person in the little tiki world. I felt pretty good about that. When I finally got my last version of the Mai Tai that I use now and put it on the menu at The Polynesian, Sean Muldoon from Dead Rabbit came in and said, “Brian, you make the best Mai Tai I’ve ever had.” I thought, “Cool. I can walk away now. I’m good. Sean Muldoon respects me.”
T: Just like that.
B: Sometimes it’s the little things in life. The Orange Curaçao was a part that I played around with a lot. Cointreau didn’t work, to me. In the beginning, I didn’t like Grand Marnier with it. I was pretty much a Clemént Créole Shrubb guy. That would still be the first backup that I would go to. Ed Hamilton had done his own Créole Shrubb, and I’d even tried that.
T: Can you tell us how that differs? We’re in Curaçao territory here, which is great.
B: All of these elements are important.
T: Can you tell us what a Créole Shrubb is?
B: It’s a Curaçao that is more rum-based. When Ed did it, he used Martinique rum, so sometimes it became a little too Martinique rum-y for me. The Orange Curaçao needs to assert itself, but not be a dominating force in the Mai Tai. The Creole Shrubb was there. It added the right element. It blended with the rums and the orgeat. Everything just married together. A good friend of mine, Nate Dumas, who was a bartender that I worked with at Pegu Club, came in and told me he had this new Grand Marnier that I should try. It was the Grand Marnier Louis Alexandre, which is so delicious.
T: Also pretty expensive.
B: Also pretty expensive. I’m of the thought that, “Hey, I’m only using half an ounce, so it’s not like I’m using a lot of it. Yes, I can use a nice, expensive one.”
T: And it’s in there for a reason.
B: It works. I would not have changed from Créole Shrubb to the Louis Alexandre if it didn’t work. My friends know that I may like your brand, but if it doesn’t work for me, I will honestly tell you that I hate it, or to get it away from me, or I will use it. I’m very blunt when it comes to how I feel about certain products.
T: But this came along.
B: This came along. It’s like someone that comes into your life and you think, “Wow, I didn’t expect this. OK, cool, This works.”
Brian Miller’s Mai Tai Recipe
T: I think that’s a really interesting point here, because that’s a very small constituent in this cocktail. I think some people listening might be surprised to hear that you are going for a very expensive bottle there, rather than maybe spending the money elsewhere or just not spending it at all because you’re thinking about your bottom line.
B: If you’re going to do it, do it right. That’s just how I was raised, with Audrey Saunders telling me, “If we’re going to put something great across the bar, we need to do it in the best possible way,” and then working with other great people. I’ve been very fortunate in that. I guess that’s where the diva aspect of my bartending comes from, because I’ve just been able to work with some really great people who have given me great products.
T: The disco element.
B: Yeah. I’ve been very fortunate in my career. We work really hard on the rums. Then, we do our research on the Curaçao. Then, we get to the orgeat, which is super important to me. I’ve been very fortunate to be friends with and have access to Adam Kolesar, who has Orgeat Works out here in Brooklyn. Adam is amazing. He’s not only an amazing human being, but he makes some of the best orgeat I’ve ever had. Martin Cate’s wife, Rebecca, also makes really great orgeat and there’s Jen Colliau with Small Hand, who makes some really great orgeat as well. Adam’s literally 20 minutes away from my apartment and a good friend, so it’s easy for me to get access to Adam stuff. Adam has really grown over the years. When he first started making orgeat, his was basically the house orgeat at Death & Company. That’s all we used.
T: Was that his only account at the time as he was getting started out?
B: Yeah, kind of. He wasn’t really in a lot of bars at that time, but he was coming to our bar. It’s grown from there. Adam’s worked with Jillian Vose, who was at Death & Company and now runs Dead Rabbit, I believe. She’s worked with Adam on some things. Thomas Waugh helped create what is now the high-density orgeat. Adam’s toasted orgeat would be simple syrup, and Adam’s HD toasted orgeat is cane syrup. It’s a little more dense. That’s what I use a lot. There’s macadamia nut orgeat that he does. He’s done his Latitude 29 orgeat, which he worked with Beachbum Berry on. He’s doing some other projects.
T: Are you just going for a classic orgeat that’s almond-based? What’s your preference?
B: I was just going with the HD. I’d use that for a while. When I came up with this last blend when I was at The Polynesian and I needed to put the Mai Tai on the menu, I decided to go back and revisit. That’s where I changed some of the rums. I went with Hampden, the Plantation 2005, and Louis Alexandre for the Curaçao. And then with the orgeat, I decided, let’s drive this thing off a cliff. Now, I do a blend of orgeat. I blend the HD, the macadamia nut, and the Latitude 29 with them all together. I’m not going to give you my recipe.
T: I’m not going to ask for it. Not going to go quite into that much detail.
B: I won’t tell you the portions of it, but I blend those three together, and I think it’s really good. We call it Adam’s greatest mix.
T: Nice. Some folks listening might be wondering if this is an ingredient that you could make yourself. I find it interesting that you’re buying it as well. Not in any kind of judgmental way, but I’m curious if that is a case where we’re talking about finding someone who can do it better and probably cheaper than you can do at the same time?
B: I tell a lot of the bartenders I train, “Why buy something when I can make it?” I can’t beat Adam. Adam showed me how to make his orgeat, and I wrote it down. To be honest, I’m still confused if I go back and look at the recipe and not sure if I could actually make it. Orgeat is something that a lot of people think they know how to make, but that’s not true. I’m sorry, but for most of the people that are making orgeat at home, it tastes like marzipan. It tastes like amaretto.
T: These days as well, there’s also labor and time. These are things we need to think about more than ever in the bar industry right now.
B: Yeah. If people are not going to squeeze their own juice because it takes too much time, but they’re going to make your own orgeat, get out of here. Orgeat is a labor-intensive process.
T: It makes me think of the bread in a restaurant. Some restaurants make amazing bread. Most don’t. Most don’t have the time or the skilled labor to do so.
B: Yeah. Bread is kind of like cocktails. Just keep it simple. Make it amazing. There you go. You don’t have to do anything really crazy. I mean, I do love myself some lard bread, but that’s a whole other thing.
T: Final element of the cocktail here: lime. How deep do you want to go on that? How do you feel about it?
B: I don’t think I really need to go deep. Squeeze it fresh.
T: To order? Before the beginning of each shift? Case dependent?
B: You can’t squeeze it to order. Get real and wake up. You’ve got to squeeze it. There are many different thoughts on lime juice. People have various opinions about it. Some people will say that it actually tastes better the longer it sits and it’s at its peak several hours after you squeeze it. Like I was saying earlier, I don’t have time for that. If you’re opening a bar, squeeze your lime juice. Put it in the well. Just using fresh squeezed lime juice, I think, is a victory in and of itself.
T: Like you said before, buy your orgeat so that you can squeeze your fresh lime.
B: Yeah. Pick and choose your battles. I don’t want to die on the hill of trying to create my own orgeat. That would just take way too much time and I could never do it as well as Adam does. But, with lime juice, just squeeze it and then save the lime shells.
T: You’re saving your lime shells?
B: Yeah. I usually tell the barback, prep guy, whoever’s juicing to always just save me a quart container or two, depending on how busy things are, of lime shells. This was also another part of the process with the Mai Tai. I used to squeeze the shell in, dropping it in, and then shaking with it.
T: That’s what you’re saving them for? To put them in the tin when you’re shaking?
B: Yeah. Then, we did some taste tests. I worked with some of my bartenders, and we played around with the Mai Tai at The Polynesian, and one bartender told me, “I think it’s better if we just drop the shell in and don’t pinch it. I said, “OK, cool.” He was absolutely right. That works. I also tend to do that with my Daiquiris as well. I put a lime shell in there.
The Role of Shaking, Ice, and Glassware in the Mai Tai
T: So, would that be a regal shake, then? There seems to be certain corners of the internet where you go, where using a spent lime in your shaking tin will be described as a regal shake. Other places say, no, it’s only the peel. I know that those two things are different. Is this a term that you’re aware of? What’s going on with the regal shake?
B: I know nothing. I don’t know anything about the regal shake. I’ve never heard that term until you mentioned it to me. I just shake with a lime shell in it. I didn’t know that it had a name.
T: Is that cutting any time down by putting that on your recipe?
B: I think if I wrote a recipe and said, “Put a lime shell in and shake it,” that would confuse bartenders. If I just said “Put all the ingredients in, add ice, and regal shake,” they’d be like, “What on earth is that?” I’d think that, too.
T: There does appear to be some confusion. As I had explained to you beforehand as well, I was at a citrus seminar with Dale DeGroff, which I have mentioned on this show before. Apologies for continuing to plug that.
B: Name dropper.
T: It was the end of the talk. It was a Q&A, and there was a very young, enthusiastic bartender in the crowd that asked Dale, “How do you feel about the regal shake?” He turned away from his mic to the person next to him and said, “What’s the regal shake?” Nobody knew. The bartender said, “It’s this, using the lime in the tin.” He said, “Well, yeah, we’ve always done that, but I’ve never heard this name.” So, that fascinates me.
B: Yeah. I give Dale credit for not jumping down that kid’s throat. Dale’s a gentleman and a scholar. It’s like anything else in this world. Some people know things by a certain name and other people have no idea what they’re talking about. I never heard the regal shake, but if the person that created it is listening, well done. To me, it’s just shaking with a lime shell in it.
T: Fine. Like I said, disclaimer, it might be peel. Whatever. Long story short, you’re saving your spent limes, and you’re doing that because you have them in the tin. This brings us to an important next part of the conversation. This is a drink that you shake, and I’d love to hear how you shake it. It hasn’t always classically been seen that way. What’s the other preparation that people can do?
B: I’m not positive on this, but based on tiki history, I don’t know if it was done in the Hamilton blender, like one of the jockey blenders. I don’t know how it would be done that way, considering there has pretty much always been a lime shell in the drink.
T: Yeah, that’s not coming out well.
B: It doesn’t seem like it would work.
T: But, some folks go down this other route rather than shaking.
B: If you can afford to get a Hamilton blender, yes.
T: And what is a Hamilton blender?
B: A Hamilton has the long stick with the blade on the end. It’s something you’d see if you went to an old-fashioned milkshake place.
T: I think Dante uses them for their Garibaldi, maybe.
B: They may. I had them at The Polynesian. There is a time and place for them. With Adam, I used to go over to his house and make tiki drinks. We did a night where I made a Zombie and shaked with four ice cubes, like I usually do, and then poured it on crushed ice. He made it with the Hamilton blender. To be honest, it was better in the Hamilton blender. That gave me pause and gave me a reason to think, “OK, cool, when I open my own bar, I’m going to have a Hamilton blender.” With the Mai Tai, I throw four cold, dry cubes in there. I shake it up, dump it all into a glass top, top it off with crushed ice, and then garnish it.
T: Including those Kold Draft cubes?
B: Yep. Including Kold Draft cubes and the lime shell. That adds a visual element to it as well. It’s in the same vein, perhaps, as a Caipirinha.
T: On the other hand, if you are using the blender, you’re needing to realize beforehand, “How much ice am I using there to get the dilution perfect?”
B: Exactly. That’s a whole other thing. It’s like, “Oh, great. We’re using four rums, one Curaçao, and three orgeats. Now we have to figure out how much ice we’re going to put in the blender and for how long we’re going to blend it?
T: What if your ice sucks and you’ve got all these ingredients?
B: There’s an element of bartending where sometimes it can get a little too precious.
T: One thing I want to hear, too, is, you’re dumping the Kold Draft cubes in there as well. Why is that?
B: The main reason for me is that having those Kold Draft cubes in there as well and then putting the crushed ice on top of it, it kind of keeps. If it was just all crushed ice, it might dilute a little bit faster. Any time that I do a crushed ice drink, I put one or two Kold draft cubes in there just to keep it from melting really quickly. If you’re putting something on crushed ice, the reason why you shake with a small amount of cubes is just to get the alcohol cold so when it hits the crushed ice, it doesn’t immediately melt.
T: Oh, man. You’re talking my language now. I have to make a confession here to you, which is that I often steer clear of drinks with crushed ice just because I worry about that. Call me lush or something, I don’t know. I worry about this incredible cocktail that I’ve just ordered, within three sips, being water and thinking, “What happened to the rest of my drink?”
B: I think that depends on the bartender in the establishment that you are in. I can’t speak for all establishments, but I would say at a good chunk of the classic cocktail bars here in New York City, those bartenders know what they’re doing. If they don’t, the person that’s in charge will let them know immediately.
T: That’s a great visual cue for me. If I can see, in the glass, four Kold Draft cubes or if I am seeing that dump happening, that’s a good visual cue that it’s going to maintain its concentration for a while.
B: You have to let a bartender be a bartender. I know we all like to sit there in judgment and watch a bartender make a drink. Sometimes, that could throw certain bartenders off. Other ones have been through it a million times and are just making the drink.
T: Muscle memory.
B: I’ve been the bartender at Death & Company when the couple comes in, and there’s the guy that thinks he knows everything and the woman who’s on the date is sitting there. He’s basically Howard Cosell-ing me and saying, “Do you see how he stirs the drink right to left and blah blah blah” and talks while I’m making the drink. Just let them make the drink. When you get it, you might be surprised. They may not make it the way that you think it’s supposed to be made or how you read it or saw it on a blog, or whatever. Judge the cocktail once it’s in front of you. Don’t worry about the process in which it’s created. That’s the bartender’s job, and they probably have reasons for doing the things that they do. There are plenty of times where I have watched bartenders of my own at The Polynesian make my drink better than I did, just based on the way that they shook it or how quickly they blended it. Just relax. Taste the drink. If you have a problem with it, then you can say something later, but at least taste it. It’s like people who put salt on food before they even taste it. Just taste it.
T: Oh, man. Or the four-foot-long pepper mill that we have these days on the steak.
B: How that survived from the ’80s, I have no idea.
T: I should state, for the record here, when I am watching my bartender make the drink, usually it’s out of the side of my eye. I’m not putting on that pressure. More than anything, I’m watching just to appreciate what’s happening.
B: Yeah. Dude, I’ve stolen aspects of my own bartending style from watching other bartenders and how they shake and how they stir cocktails. Absolutely. I’m a pirate. I’m a thief. I steal from other people, but I also give them credit.
T: Final aspect of this drink. Anything important we should know about glassware and garnish? We know that we’re dumping it in there.
B: You can dump it in there. Usually, it’s a double Old Fashioned glass. There are clear glass ones that have people do cool designs and stuff like that on the glass. It can go in a little ceramic coconut. It should be like a short double Old Fashioned-style glass, coconut, or something like that. The old rule in tiki is that, once you think you’ve garnished it, you should garnish it some more. Traditionally, it’s got to have mint sprigs in it at the very least. I throw in an orchid. Audrey used to always say, “Everybody loves flowers, just put a flower in it. It’s not just for the women. Everybody loves it.” If the people really enjoy the drink, you will find that orchid in their hair somewhere, guys or girls. You can play with toys. Put a cool swizzle stick in it or something like that. I’m a big fan of throwing cool little toys in there, whether it’s a pirate or a cool little skull swizzle stick. It should be fun. That’s what tiki and tropical drinks are. They’re fun. They don’t take themselves seriously.
Final Thoughts On the Mai Tai
T: Awesome. Any final thoughts about the Mai Tai? If not only so that the next time I start chatting with someone about it, I don’t bring in my terrible Applebee’s joke.
B: It is rum, lime, and sugar, with the orgeat and the Orange Curaçao thrown in. It’s a very simple drink. You can definitely play with it, like with all tiki drinks. You can split the rum base. You could even split the Curaçao if you wanted to, split the orgeat, and really have fun with it. Once you throw pineapple juice, Grenadine, Bacardi 151, passion fruit, or something like that in it, it ceases to be a Mai Tai. Just call it what it is. A Mai Tai is rum, lime, orgeat, and Orange Curaçao. That’s it. If you throw pineapple in it, it’s not a Mai Tai. It could be delicious, just call it something else.
T: Well, Brian, it’s been amazing exploring this cocktail with you today.
B: Hopefully people have learned something.
Getting To Know Brian Miller
T: I’m sure they’ve learned a lot. Beyond that, I just want to learn a little bit more about you, as we always do at the end, finishing with some quick fire questions.
B: OK, sure. Fire away.
T: Amazing. Question No. 1: What’s the first bottle, whether it’s a brand or general category, that’s going to make it onto one of your bar programs?
T: If you said gin, I was going to call this whole thing off. Glad to hear it. Which ingredient or tool is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
B: The jigger. It’s the first building block of a cocktail. Sometimes, you get jiggers that just aren’t accurate. You really have to pay attention.
T: Third question: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received in the industry?
B: Be humble, and work in service. I got that from Ben Dougherty, who was the owner and sometimes bartender at Zig Zag Cafe in Seattle. It’s definitely one of my favorite bars. The word mentor is thrown around way too easily, much like the words literally and love. I would say Ben is a mentor of mine, though. Ben taught me not only a lot about bartending, but about the business side as well. If you are in Seattle and have never been to Zig Zag Cafe, you’re a moron. Go down to that bar immediately. It’s one of the best bars in the world, I think. Ben was just super helpful to me in the beginning of my career.
T: Wonderful advice there. Question No. 4: If you could only visit one bar for the rest of your life, which one would it be?
B: If I could, Don the Beachcomber at McCadden Place would probably be it. If it was a bar today, it’d be Zig Zag.
T: Awesome. Final question for you, Brian: If you knew that the next cocktail that you drank was going to be the last of your life…?
B: Zombie. 1934 Zombie.
T: Would you make it or would you have someone make that for you?
B: I’d have Don make it. If I could have anybody make me a drink, Don would make me a ’34 Zombie. I’d love to have a Zombie with Don, Sasha Petraske, and Rob Cooper. Cocktail industry people. If my grandmother was drinking a Zombie, that’d be really cool, too.
T: I love that. That sounds like a great dinner party.
B: Cary Grant, too. We’re all drinking Zombies. People have always asked me what my desert island drink is. It’s 1934 Zombie. They ask, “Why?” I say, “By the time I got done with it, I’d forget that I was on a desert island. I’d forget what my fate is.” I love the Zombie. That’s one of my favorite drinks. God bless you, Beachbum Berry for giving us that recipe.
T: Awesome. Well, thank you, Brian. It has been amazing having this conversation with you. Let’s go grab a Mai Tai.
B: Absolutely, we need one. The world needs a Mai Tai, and the world needs tropical tiki drinks. It’s fun.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.