Why Does This Mai Tai From a Famed Chicago Tiki Bar Cost $800?

It's worth every penny.

<p>Lindsay Eberly</p>

Lindsay Eberly

The Mai Tai is one of the most enduringly popular cocktails of all time. It’s also one of the most misunderstood. The undisputed king of tiki tipples is often rendered today as a sugary sweet assortment of tropical juices and spiced rums. But that’s not at all how the drink tasted when it was first conceived by “Trader Vic” Bergeron almost 80 years ago. Originally, it would have been a drier, less fruity affair — a daiquiri variation built upon funky Jamaican rum, orange curaçao, and almond syrup. While many have moved away from this original intent, Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago is on the frontlines, preserving the legacy — and authenticity — for a new generation.

Hidden down an alley basement in the River North neighborhood of Chicago, the tropically-themed parlor is the country’s preeminent depository for all things tiki. And for nearly a decade, Kevin Beary has been the talented tastemaker steering the ship. Now, the award-winning mixologist has assembled the necessary ingredients to recreate the original Trader Vic’s 1944 Mai Tai. It’s a full-on portal to the past in liquid form. And it’ll only set you back $800. So, what exactly goes into the world’s most expensive Mai Tai?

First comes the sourcing of impossibly rare vintage spirits. To skirt as close as humanly possible to the genuine thing, Beary acquired a bottle of Wray & Nephew 15-Year-Old Rum from the early 1950s on auction. Next, he got his hands on a decanter of Extra Sec Cusenier — a vintage orange liqueur from the same time period, akin to the curaçao that would have been used in the original Mai Tai.

Related: Love a Daiquiri? Here are 15 Rum Drinks To Try Next

Then came an outsized measure of research. He enlisted the consultation of Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, one of the world's foremost authorities on tiki, whose tomes on the subject have led to him being labeled a "cocktail archeologist." Beary and Berry holed up for several days at the Bamboo Room (the bar within the bar at Three Dots), poring over historical documents while pouring through high-end spirits. To give you an idea of just how geeky the affair was, it involved the use of refractometers for analyzing sugar levels.  

"One of the biggest lessons for me in recreating the old Mai Tai was seeing that the vintage curaçao from 1944 was significantly sweeter than the curaçao of today," said Beary after the makeshift Tiki-Con. "That difference really helps me understand why the original recipe reads as dry and unbalanced as it does because one of those crucial ingredients was sweeter back then."

Cracking open the vintage Wray & Nephew was also an edifying experience. Beary and his team had actually been holding onto it since 2018. During that time, they've been sampling other vintage Mai Tais from across the country to ensure that they could maximize the effect of employing this precious liquid. The recent release of Appleton 17 Year Old Legend helped accelerate their efforts. Unveiled this summer by the distillery that now owns the Wray & Nephew brand, it was intended to be a spiritual reenactment of that exalted 1944-era rum. 

Bergeron was initially using a 17-year-old expression, but within a few years, the runaway success of his creation had depleted the global supply of the spirit. So, by the early 1950s, he had switched to the exact mark of rum that Three Dots now holds.

"I anticipated it would be far less delicate than it was," said Beary after finally tasting it. "I figured Wray & Nephew, 100% pot still, aged 15 years, was going to be a sledgehammer. And it was not. It's still one of the best rums that I've ever tried. It was just so much more nuanced and balanced than I was expecting."

The revelation led him to slightly readjust the specs of his own everyday house Mai Tai, one in which he serves hundreds of in any given week. It also landed him on the proportions necessary to reanimate Bergeron's classical vision: two ounces of the vintage rum, one ounce of lime juice, one ounce of housemade orgeat, and half an ounce of the 1950s curaçao. Served over crushed ice and garnished with fresh mint, orchid, and a lime hull — in a specialized tiki glass — and voilà, you've got your $800 Mai Tai.

"We had to dial it in before we could sell it to someone in good faith," adds Beary.

Rest assured, ample due diligence was involved. As a result, it's not merely the most expensive or authentic Mai Tai you'll ever see on a menu today. It's also the most delicious. 

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