Let's Go Sippin' Now

This entry marks the debut of Paul Clarke here at Serious Eats. Paul has been blogging about cocktails on his site The Cocktail Chronicles since 2005. He'll drop by on Wednesdays with some insight into the world of cocktails and then again on Fridays with a recipe for your weekend tippling pleasure. --The Serious Eats Team

Words by Paul Clarke | Trouble must have made Richard Nixon pretty thirsty. In 1973, just as Watergate was gathering an unstoppable head of steam, the increasingly besieged president began to seek refuge in, of all places, Trader Vic's. As Eric Felten wrote recently in his "How's Your Drink?" column in the Wall Street Journal: "Oddly, the mai tai was the favorite drink of Richard Nixon, a man who—though sorely lacking in beach-bum credentials—found solace in the Trader's tiki fantasy land."

Nixon's fortunes soon plummeted, but it could be argued that those of the mai tai fell just as hard. A staple of every Waikiki tourist trap and grim strip-mall Polynesian grill, the mai tai was once the grand kahuna of the tiki bar. Created in Oakland, California, by Vic Bergeron in 1944, the original mai tai—the true recipe for which was kept confidential for more than 25 years—was an elegant blend of aged Jamaican rum, Dutch curacao, French orgeat syrup and fresh-squeezed lime juice, as perfectly balanced and nuanced as any concoction by a modern-day bar chef.

While Trader Vic's was still making a more-or-less authentic version at the time Nixon became a repeat customer, by the early 1970s the venerable mai tai had slipped into the Gilligan's Island wilderness, obscured by countless phony replicas calling for all manner of tropical juices and glow-in-the-dark syrups and flavorings.

books-sippin-safari.jpgNixon never recovered his stature, but there's still hope for the mai tai. Last month, tiki aficionado and self-styled cultural anthropologist Jeff "Beachbum" Berry released his latest book, Sippin' Safari, which explores the bars and restaurants that made up the mid-century Polynesian fad and celebrates the people who prepared such popular and top-secret creations as the Zombie, the Last Rites, the Pohoehoe, and, of course, the mai tai. Berry makes no secret of his mission: to restore the reputation of what he calls "faux-tropical" drinks ("faux," because most trace their lineage to Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, or Columbus, rather than some exotic Pacific port of call), and to celebrate their role in contemporary culinary history. As Berry writes:

Far from the culinary ghetto in which they dwell today, tropical drinks were once considered the height of cocktail chic by the rich, the famous, and the most finicky of food critics; they were served in lavishly appointed Polynesian-themed restaurants, often designed by Hollywood art directors to create the illusion that you were dining by moonlight in a South Seas island grotto, complete with indoor waterfalls, imported jungle foliage, and museum-quality native art and artifacts.

The much-maligned tiki drink has finally found its champion, and its shot at redemption. Haldeman and the gang should have been so lucky.

About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.

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