The Road to Mai-Tai

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I am not a mixologist. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good drink and have partaken of a few in my 48+ years on this Earth. I’ve always enjoyed a good beer, especially since the craft brewery explosion that began in the mid-80s and introduced us to tasty beers like Sam Adams’ Boston Lager and Dock Street’s Amber Ale (my personal favorite). I’ve also done some home brewing in my days, but I was never really very good at it.

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I also do like wines and champagnes, although I’m far from a connoisseur of the fermented grape. I usually prefer these with a meal or dessert. I guess my stomach fares better with wine when it’s not empty. I’ve developed a taste for a nice Shiraz, but my favorite is probably a Pinot Noir. I think this happened after I saw the movie Sideways!

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As for mixed drinks, there are so many to choose from, where do we start? For me, my earliest recollections of underage drinking involved Rum & Cokes, Seven & 7s and Sloe Gin Fizzes (which look really gross when they come back up!). These were simple drinks, and my tastes didn’t get more complicated as I grew older, only more refined. I developed a taste for Gin in my 30s: Tanqueray & Tonic for a refreshing summer drink, and for a more serious cocktail, the Bombay Sapphire Martini. Shaken, not stirred. Straight up. Neat. With olives.

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If there’s one thing the martini taught me (besides the joke about martinis being like women’s breasts: 1 isn’t enough and 3 is 1 too many!), it’s an appreciation for the ritual of making a good cocktail. I guess drinking has gotten more complicated for me after all! I love to get out the blender to mix up a nice Piña Colada or Margarita, and I really enjoy watching a good bartender whip up a vintage drink with more than 2 ingredients and some cool garnish. Again, I would have fit right in during 1965, the year of my birth.

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I guess this is why I’ve also come to appreciate Tiki drinks. Talk about craftsmanship! Starting in the Caribbean at the end of the 19th Century, Rum-based drinks have really grown in popularity as they’ve evolved from the original holy trinity of rum, lime juice and sugar. Shanghai’d to Southern California by Don The Beachcomber in the 1930s, the rum drink came into its own in Mid-Century America as Asian bartenders competed to make the fanciest, tastiest, potent concoctions we know as Tiki drinks today.

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Donn Beach created such famous drinks as the Zombie and Missionary’s Downfall in Los Angeles, but it was “Trader Vic” Bergeron in Oakland who created the ubiquitous Mai-Tai, the most famous of all Tiki drinks and my personal favorite libation (as of this writing). According to Trader Vic’s story, he was messing around with a new drink idea and served it to two friends visiting from Tahiti. After trying it, one of them exclaimed “Mai Tai – Roa Ae,” which in Tahitian means “Out of this world – the best.” I would agree.

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The problem with Mai-Tais is the same problem with many things: there are really good ones, and there are really bad ones. Some of the worst Mai-Tais I’ve ever had were in hotel bars and in cheap restaurants not known for their drinks. These were no more than rum mixed with Kool-Aid – I should have known better than to even order them! The best Mai-Tai I’ve had (so far) was at the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, followed closely by the offering at Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago.

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So I’ve come up with my own Mai-Tai recipe, and after much trial and error, I think I’ve now got a pretty good cocktail. It’s a little more involved than Trader Vic’s original recipe, as I tried to replicate the Mai-Kai’s version and don’t skimp on the fruit juices. I did follow Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s advice, though, and made sure the Rum remains the star of my Mai-Tai, as it should be. So if you’re ever in the Bethlehem area, please stop by the Tiki Lounge so I can mix us up A. Panda’s Mai-Tai. Mahalo!

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Aloha Spirit: Sunset Beach

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As I mentioned before, I believe karma introduced me to Tiki, and it continues to swim in my bloodstream. I’ve seen many signs in my travels that have confirmed this for me. Here is an example of what I’m talking about.

Montego Bay, Jamaica, June 2012. Jess and I eloped here 9 years earlier, and we decided to bring the whole family back for our second trip. I wasn’t sure how the kids would do at the Sunset Beach resort, which is family-friendly but has limited entertainment options compared to, say, Walt Disney World. I needn’t have worried – everybody had a great time! It turns out Sunset Beach had made some improvements in the 9 years since our first trip, the biggest of which was a new pirates’ castle with a dual water slide and a lazy river connecting to one of the swimming pools. Add this to the existing swim-up bars (one of my earliest bucket list cross-offs!) and you have fun for the whole family. The kids loved going up to the bars and ordering themselves (virgin) Strawberry Daiquiris, and Jess & I partook of many a (high-test) Strawberry Daiquiri and Piña Colada.

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So what’s the Tiki connection? Well, I never really thought of any before, until I read a recent article by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry promoting his new book, Potions of The Caribbean. Mr. Berry is the world’s foremost expert on Tiki drinks, and he posits that all of the popular Tiki drinks made famous by Don The Beachcomber and Trader Vic in the 1940s-50s in California actually originated in the Caribbean, where rum was king going back to the days of Christopher Columbus. These early drink pioneers simply took recipes popular in, say, Cuba, dressed them up with tropical garnishes, gave them fancy Polynesian names, and voila: Tiki drinks. The most basic of these, Planters Punch, is a simple mixture of rum, lime juice and sugar syrup, and originated in…Jamaica!

But there’s more to this Jamaica-Tiki connection than just booze. During this trip, we were introduced to the Jamaican concept of Irie. I had gotten a sense of this spirit when we first came here to get married, whenever the locals working at the resort would say “no problem” or “ja mon” or just always be smiling, as if the abject poverty outside of the resort boundaries couldn’t get them down, when in fact they had every reason to be bitter about being a very poor nation, but regardless, the Jamaican people we interacted with seemed very happy.

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So what is Irie, anyway? I found a few cool definitions:

  1. adj powerful and pleasing;
  2. adj excellent, highest;
  3. noun the state of feeling great;
  4. noun a state of peacefulness or harmony either with oneself or the world in general.

Wow, sound familiar? Irie and Aloha Spirit are physically worlds apart but spiritually quite close. Although I had never heard the term Irie when we first came to Jamaica, it was everywhere on this trip: t-shirts, posters, signs; some marketing genius must have decided Jamaica’s pleasing spirit needed a brand name! Wasn’t Bob Marley enough of a goodwill ambassador? He surely embodied the Irie spirit of Jamaica.

So, in retrospect, I feel there’s a strong connection between our choice to elope to Jamaica years ago, the joy of of our recent family vacation there, and the spirit of aloha I feel exploring Tiki culture. It was karma that we were introduced to Irie. Mahalo, people of Jamaica. Respect!

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