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Trader Vic’s Legacy of Tiki Bars and Mai Tais

On November 17, 1934, Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr opened up Hinky Dinks with a borrowed $500. He set up across the street from his parents’ grocery store. From that single location, Bergeron would build one of the most successful chains of themed restaurants in modern history. Bergeron also gave us the classic Mai Tai.

A Fortuitous Rise to Success

Trader_Vic_Menu

Trader Vic’s Menu

When Bergeron opened up Hinky Dink’s at the corner of San Pablo Avenue and 65th Street in Oakland, California’s Golden Gate District, he hardly had plans of international expansion. He started with vaguely tropical decor. As the restaurant gained popularity, Bergeron committed more fully to the tropical theme. Meanwhile, the place earned the nickname “Trader Vic’s,” and eventually Bergeron changed the name.

In 1940, the first franchised Trader Vic’s opened, in Seattle, Washington. A decade later, the chain opened a location in Hawaii, and in 1951, the San Francisco location opened. As the chain expanded, other restauranteurs took notice and began emulating the Trader Vic’s marketing model. The restaurant’s growth was aided by the Tiki culture fad of the 1950’s and 1960’s, which helped the chain grow to 25 locations around the world. Patrons flocked in for the exotic cuisine, tropical cocktails, and Polynesian decor. But Trader Vic’s fell prey to flagging interest in the Tiki culture throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s. The chain has downsized somewhat, with 19 restaurants worldwide.

Trader_Vics_Book_Food_Drink

Trader Vic’s Book of Food and Drink (1946)

Bergeron also published multiple cookbooks and bartending guides. Trader Vic’s Book of Food and Drink  became a classic, offering a glimpse into that past with fantastic cocktail recipes, food recipes, how to throw a luau, and an in-depth look into the different rums of the world. Lucius Beebe wrote the introduction. The copy pictured at left is a signed first edition in near fine condition.

Trader_Vics_Kitchen_KibitzerPublished in 1952, Trader Vic’s Kitchen Kibitzer features illustrations by Alec Yuill-Thorton. Its drop title is “The cookbook for men, and for the women who cook for men.” The volume is a real throwback with chapter titles like “The Summer Bachelor,” “For Nimrods,” “Guys’ Parties,” “Why Make Drinking So Complicated,” and more.

 

Inventing a Tiki Bar Classic

Meanwhile Trader Vic left another legacy: the classic tropical cocktail known as a Mai Tai. In the 1947 edition of The Trader Vic Bartender Guide, Bergeron explains how he came to invent the drink. Looking for a new flavor profile, he decided to play up the flavors of J. Wray and Nephew Jamaican rum. Bergeron poured the rum over shaved ice and added the juice of half a fresh lime, along with a splash of orange curacao, a dash of rock candy syrup, and a dollop of French orgeat. He shook it vigorously and added a dash of fresh mint. Bergeron presented this inaugural round of his new invention to friends Eastham and Carrie Guild, who were Tahitian. Carrie took one sip and said, “Mai tai roa ae,” which means “Out of this world, the best.” Bergeron immediately christened the drink the Mai Tai.

Trader_Vic_Making_Mai_Tai

Trader Vic mixing a Mai Tai

Over the years, other people would claim credit for the Mai Tai, most notably Don the Beachcomber. Before he died, Bergeron said, “There’s been a lot of conversation over the beginning of the Mai Tai, and I want to set the record straight. I originated the Mai Tai. Many others have claimed credit. All of this aggravates my ulcer completely. Anyone who says I didn’t create this drink is a dirty stinker.”

The Mai Tai gained popularity at Trader Vic’s restaurants, and by 1953 he’d introduced the cocktail to Hawaii at the Royal Hawaiian and Moana Hotels. But in 1959, shortly after Hawaii became a state, jets cut the flight time to Hawaii from the West Coast by 4.5 hours. Hawaii faced a new influx of American tourists, eager to soak up the sun and tropical milieu. Bartenders were slammed with requests for Mai Tais, and soon the original recipe had been diluted in countless ways–most frequently by the use of Hawaiian pineapple juice in place of fresh squeezed limes. Though it may be more difficult to get an original Mai Tai at your local watering hole, you can make them at home with Trader Vic’s original recipe:

Trader Vic’s Mai Tai

  • 80-proof J Wray and Nephew rum over shaved ice
  • Juice from 1/2 a fresh lime
  • Orange curacao
  • A dash of rock candy syrup
  • A dollop of French orgeat

Shake the ingredients vigorously and garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.

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This entry was posted on May 30, 2014 by in History, Wine, Beer, and Cocktails and tagged , , , , .
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