Pickle Mai Tai cocktail is a modern pickle twist on the classic Mai Tai tiki cocktail using pineapple fennel shrub syrup drinking vinegar, pistachio rose water orgeat syrup and coconut palm arrack. The Mai Tai is one of the quintessential tiki cocktails – one classic recipe for the Mai Tai can be found in Vic Bergeron’s (1972: 164) Trader Vic’s Bartenders Guide and uses lime, orange curacao, rock candy syrup, almond orgeat syrup and Jamaican and Martinique rum, shaken and then poured over a glass filled with crushed ice and garnished with spent lime shell, mint and a fruit stick. Martin Cate (2016: 4403) in Smuggler’s Cove details that the recipe dates to 1944:
“Within the pantheon of exotic cocktails one stands above the rest as the most iconic of the era. An elegant and simple concoction, really just a nutty margarita…”
Simon Difford (2019) in Difford’s Guide provides a history of the creation of the Mai Tai recipe and explains that the cocktail is named after the phrase ‘mai tai-roa ae’ in Tahitian meaning ‘out of this world – the best!’.
Tiki cocktails, the punch formula & modern flavour experiments
Bartender Martin Cate in an interview with Jacob Brogan (2017) for Smithsonian.com explains that tiki drinks are closely related to the formula for punch: 1 of sour, 2 of sweet, 3 of strong and 4 of weak and importantly the 5th element in the formula spice – such as use of cinnamon, bitters and exotic theatrical garnishes. David Wondrich (2010) in Punch further elaborates that punch often included tea as another means of flavouring and dilution. It is this connection with punch that I explore in this recipe for a pickle Mai Tai with choice of the base spirit being equal parts Jamaican rum and Ceylon coconut palm arrack, or for a more delicate cocktail coconut palm arrack alone. Arrack is an original punch ingredient although not a rum as such because not made from molasses or sugar cane juice but the nectar of the coconut flower. Martin Cate (2016: 4491) in Smuggler’s Cove details that the original Mai Tai recipe required aged molasses based pot still rum, but writes:
“….I encourage you to experiment with rums in your Mai Tai.”
Smuggler’s Cove (Cate 2016: 4198-4243) author and bartender Martin Cate has a lovely section on the punch based formula for experimenting with modern twists on tiki recipes or as he calls these drinks ‘modern exotic cocktails’, which I highly recommend and wish I had read earlier in the process of researching and writing this post – for example a Mai Tai with bourbon: a Honi Honi; or with tequila: a Pinky Gonzalez.
How is a pickle Mai Tai cocktail different?
The pickle Mai Tai cocktail uses homemade shrub and orgeat syrups to create delicate and complex flavours – and importantly incorporates spices and tea including star anise, cinnamon and matcha tea – that add to and build on the Mai Tai cocktail recipe, whilst remaining faithful to the tropical charm of this signature cocktail with it’s roots in the punch formula. I have also experimented with the base spirit using a blend of coconut palm arrack and Jamaican rum; and arrack alone for a more delicate cocktail.
Pineapple fennel shrub syrup – The pickle Mai Tai cocktail uses a pineapple fennel shrub syrup drinking vinegar as a souring and flavour intensifying agent with a coconut vinegar base instead of lime juice. The pineapple fennel shrub is cold infused with low GI cane sugar, star anise and matcha tea with organic coconut vinegar. Making the shrub syrup does take some pre-preparation as the pineapple and fennel need to be macerated overnight to produce the thick syrup that is then combined with the coconut vinegar. The wait is well worthwhile as using a shrub syrup increases the complexity of flavours available importantly adding spices and tea while simplifying the mixing of the final drink.
Pistachio rose water orgeat – The pistachio rose water orgeat syrup also takes some advance preparation requiring maceration overnight and straining. The flavour is amazingly delicate and sweet from fresh in season pistachios and well worth the extra time and effort. Once you have made yourself some shrub syrup and orgeat syrup the mixing of the pickle Mai Tai is straight forward and simple. The original recipe uses almond orgeat which is usually flavoured with orange flower water whereas this pickle Mai Tai cocktail features pistachios and rose water offer a delicate and subtle variation in flavours.
Flavour pairing to enhance the base spirit – The base spirit is equal parts Appleton Estate signature Jamaican rum with notes of spice and lighter sweet-sour Ceylon coconut palm arrack complemented by the sweetness of orange liqueur. The coconut palm arrack is made from the nectar from the flower of the coconut palm and has a delicate sweet-sour flavour described in Ceylon Arrack’s Punch marvellous punch (de Silva Wijeyeratne 2014: 8):
“…smooth, flavoursome and multifaceted with gentle floral notes and hints of citrus, honey and praline in the background”.
Coconut palm arrack is used in place of the Martinique rum which I found in researching the Mai Tai recipe has been interpreted as rhum Agricole and in some cases Brazilian Cachaca, both made with sugar cane juice and offering a more grassy flavour profile than molasses based rum. Martin Cate in Smuggler’s Cove (2016: 4459-4501) provides a detailed discussion of the rum blend for the Mai Tai recipe indicating that the recipe began with a 17 year aged rum but as this became unavailable the recipe evolved into a blend of aged rum and ‘Martinique’ although it is more likely that the Martinique called for in the Mai Tai recipe was a molasses based rhum traditionell rather than rhum Agricole.
In the spirit of flavour experimentation and for a lighter version of this cocktail you can use only arrack and it is delicious with a more delicate flavour. The delicate rose and pistachio of the orgeat syrup complements the tart and sweet pineapple and clean fresh anise of the fennel contrasts with the spice of the rum, sweet-sourness of the arrack and sweetness of the orange liqueur. I have made a rich demerara sugar syrup (2:1). The pickle Mai Tai cocktail is a delicate and complex tropical cocktail that offers a delicious spiced pineapple twist on the original classic tiki drink.
Pickle Mai Tai Cocktail garnish – I’ve garnished the pickle Mai Tai cocktail with pineapple fronds grown in my garden (although it’s too cold to grow actual fruit here) – I love the architectural shapes of pineapples – along with slices of fresh pineapple, mint sprigs and spiced pickled cherries. This is a fantastic food upcycling idea where you can grow the spent heads of pineapples in your cocktail garden, so you always have beautiful dramatic leaves on hand for fresh garnishes. I also love to grow lemon balm, rosemary and basil to use in cocktails and shrub syrups. The lemon balm is lovely in the coconut palm arrack version of this drink bringing a more delicate sweetness than mint. The pineapple fronds add theatre and create a tall frame for the drink while the mint adds aroma and the spiced pickled cherries are a delicious way to finish the drink being pickled with a complex spice mix including cinnamon and sherry soaked vanilla bean.
Tiki is all about creating a beautiful imaginary tropical paradise of which the complex and beautifully garnished cocktails are symbolic. The pickle Mai Tai cocktail works to recreate some of this tropical tiki magic with hand crafted syrups to bring tart and sweet pineapple, crisp anise fennel, star anise spice and sweetness of matcha with delicate rose water and sweet pistachio orgeat syrup into a wonderful complex relationship with the spice notes in the rum, sweet-sour of coconut palm arrack and sweetness of orange liqueur. The beautiful architectural structures of the pineapple fronds and the triangular windows in the slices of fresh pineapple make the drink look amazing while the pickled cherries add spice and a pop of colour.
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Pickle Mai Tai cocktailPrint Recipe
- Crushed ice for serving
- Handful of ice for shaking
- 1 shot Jamaican rum (optional)
- 1 shot Ceylon coconut palm arrack (or 2 shots if making an arrack only version)
- ½ shot orange liqueur
- 2/3 shot pineapple fennel shrub syrup
- 1/3 shot cooled water to taste to dilute shrub syrup depending on acidity of your vinegar
- ½ shot pistachio rose water orgeat syrup
- ¼ shot rich demerara sugar simple syrup (2:1 sugar to water)
- Garnish: spiced pickled cherries, fresh pineapple fronds, quartered slices of pineapple, mint sprigs, or for the arrack only version swap out mint for lemon balm and add a dusting of cinnamon for extra spice
Prepare the ice – you will need a handful of ice cubes for shaking and a cup of crushed iced for serving. To make crushed ice at home wrap in a clean tea towel – then smash with a rolling pin on a chopping block. To save the ice place the freezer bag back into the freezer until needed.
Prepare the glass – add the pineapple fronds, mint, or lemon balm sprig and pineapple quarter to the rim, reserve the pickled cherry for later
Add the rum (if using), coconut palm arrack, orange liqueur, pineapple fennel shrub syrup, cooled water to taste, pistachio rose orgeat syrup, rich simple syrup and ice cubes to a shaking tin
Stir with a bar spoon and taste to check the acidity of the shrub
Seal the shaking tin and shake for 10-15 seconds until chilled and well combined
Add crushed ice to your glass, use the ice to hold the pineapple leaves and mint or lemon balm in place, smack the mint or lemon balm to bring out the oils before adding to the glass
Pour and strain the shaken cocktail into the prepared glass
Add the pickled cherry on top of the pineapple wedge, surrounded by the mint or lemon balm
Enjoy – be transported to your own imaginary tiki paradise
Inspiration - Trader Vic Mai Tai recipe circa 1944 as published 1972
Trader Vic with Shirley Sarvis (1972). Trader Vic's Bartender's Guide, Revised Doubleday: New York.
Other online Mai Tai recipes
Smuggler's Cove Mai Tai. In Coastal Living.
Simon Difford (2019). Mai Tai cocktail: recipes and origins in Difford’s Guide.
Simon Difford (2019). Mai Tai (Trader Vic’s Cocktail). In Difford’s Guide.
Tiki culture & recipes
Martin Cate with Rebecca Cate. (2016). Smuggler's Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki Ten Speed Press: New York.
Punch: tea and spice as flavourings
David Wondrich (2010). Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl Perigree, Penguin: New York.
Amal de Silva Wijeyeratne (2014). Punch, Marvellous Punch: The Ceylon Arrack Guide to Punch. International Publication Network.