Victor Jules Bergeron Jr liked to tell tall tales. The cantankerous one-legged rum savant would sing songs about losing his limb in a shark attack (doctors had amputated his left leg at the tender age of six due to tuberculosis of the knee) and recount stories of growing up on a remote South Pacific island (he was born and bred in San Francisco), but the funny thing about Bergeron is that his greatest adventure was entirely true: the legend of Trader Vic.
“Life was pretty uninteresting,” Bergeron would admit of his early adulthood in the memoir, Frankly Speaking. However, in 1934 he borrowed 800 bucks from his aunt and built a hole-in-the-wall bar just opposite his parents’ grocery store in Oakland, California. He’d enjoyed working at a restaurant during a youthful series of failed career paths, and figured he had the wherewithal to go it alone. It would prove the first step on a journey to running a multi-million dollar empire.
Hinky Dinks – named after a colourful Chicago political boss or a riff on its rinky-dink size, no one really knows which – was little more than a wooden shack that served up beer, a few cocktails and burgers to locals. In many ways, it was like any other Californian dive, save for its raconteur host and his knack for crafting unusual boozy concoctions. But Bergeron had grander plans. Inspired by the success of formative Tiki bar Don’s Beachcomber in Hollywood, the wily bartender chartered a course for the exotic. Assuming the swashbuckling alias Trader Vic, a name given to him by his first wife due to his wheeler-dealer bartering tendencies, Bergeron put his name above the door and created a Polynesian fantasyland – complete with a food and drinks menu to match. The venue was an overnight success.
By 1944, Trader Vic and his eponymous bar had already achieved statewide success, but one fateful night he would create a drink that would forever consign his name to cocktail lore. “After success with several exotic rum drinks, I felt a new drink was needed,” Bergeron would write in his 1972 Bartender’s Guide. “I took down a bottle of seventeen-year-old rum. It was J Wray & Nephew from Jamaica – surprisingly golden in colour, medium bodied, but with the rich pungent flavour particular to the Jamaican blends. The flavour of this great rum wasn’t meant to be overpowered with heavy additions of fruit juices and flavourings. I took a fresh lime, added some orange curaçao from Holland, a dash of rock candy syrup, and a dollop of French orgeat for its subtle almond flavour. I added a generous amount of shaved ice and shook it vigorously by hand to produce the marriage I was after. Half the lime shell went into each drink for colour; and I stuck in a branch of fresh mint.”
As luck would have it, the recipients of Trader Vic’s latest creation were Ham and Carrie Guild, friends from Tahiti, who would lend this drink its iconic name: “Carrie took one sip and said, ‘Mai Tai-Roa Aé.’ In Tahitian this means ‘Out of this world - the best.’ Well that was that. I named the drink ‘Mai Tai’.”
Decades before social media, one might think of the Mai Tai as the first drink that ever went viral. This harmonious blend of aged rum, citrus, and elaborate syrups was so evocative in its taste of the exotic that it became requested in bars across California. Rival barmen, most notably Donn Beach, fabricated their own Mai Tai creation and claimed it as the first, while Trader Vic himself took the original recipe to the northwest with his newly opened bar in Seattle in 1948 and later to the Hawaiian islands in the 1950s where it became a staple on cruise liners.
It brought Bergeron money, fame, and notoriety: life was vastly more interesting as Trader Vic. By the 1960s, with Tiki culture at its zenith, as many as 25 Trader Vic’s restaurants were in operation worldwide. And while the Mai Tai wasn’t the sole contributor, it was poured in its thousands on a daily basis. To this day, the Mai Tai remains one of the most famous cocktails ever created – and, in this writer’s humble opinion, perhaps the finest cocktail of them all, more than living up to its ‘out of this world’ Tahitian definition. But, more than that, the Mai Tai was emblematic of Tiki culture’s ability to transport average joes outside of humdrum post-war, post-Depression America, and offer them escapism by the glassful.
Assuming the alias Trader Vic, Bergeron put his name above the door and created a Polynesian fantasyland
It’s funny. It was during the pandemic that I rediscovered Tiki culture and the Mai Tai, and in its tropical embrace I, too, found a world beyond the banal isolation that Covid foisted upon us. For a few hours a week, I would play Hawaiian lap steel guitar through the speakers and fall deeper down the rabbit hole of Trader Vic’s iconic creation. I read Martin Cate’s seminal Tiki cocktail book, Smuggler’s Cove, accumulated far too much rum, and started making my own syrups. It’s silly, I know, but it cast a shining light in a period that was a little dark otherwise.
The Mai Tai, as described by Bergeron himself, may seem like a relatively simple concoction, but the more you look at it, the greater your appreciation grows for Trader Vic’s genius. Dry curaçao, for example, is richer than Cointreau but not nearly as sweet as orange liqueurs like Grand Marnier; orgeat, a heady almond syrup (best made at home), gives the cocktail body and complexity; while the choice of a long-aged rum flies in the face of anyone who believes that an older age statement spirit should be drunk neat.
The choice of rum is, of course, at the very heart of the Mai Tai. But there’s a problem. So popular was the Mai Tai at Tiki’s pomp that global reserves of J Wray & Nephew 17 Year Old Liqueur Rum were almost entirely depleted. Yep, we drank it all. Indeed, bottles of the original J Wray & Nephew 17 have sold at auction for upwards of $50,000 in recent times. Oh, and should you like an ‘original’ Mai Tai? The Merchant Hotel back in 2008 was the last to feature the rare rum on its menu, charging £750 per cocktail for the privilege of using Trader Vic’s chosen spirit, known as ‘the world’s most expensive Mai Tai’.
It poses an interesting question for bartenders looking to replicate Trader Vic’s exact specification: how do you create the tasting notes of a rum that doesn’t exist anymore? The answer for most is to create your own ‘Mai Tai blend’ consisting of the properties of J Wray & Nephew 17 Year Old Liqueur Rum. To do that, we’ve got to figure out what we’re working with here.
“In 1916, J Wray & Nephew bought Appleton Estate and began producing aged rums; including a 15 Year Old, 17 Year Old and a 20 Year Old. The 17-Year-Old was stand-out and prized for its ‘rich, pungent flavour’ which caught the attention and imagination of bartenders around the world,” Joy Spence, master blender at Appleton Estate, tells me over the phone.
Spence joined Appleton Estate in 1981, in a twist of fate the same year that the J Wray & Nephew 17 was discontinued, but she is perhaps the world’s leading expert on the rum as she has been quietly working on a special recreation for the best part of a decade, the Appleton Estate 17-Year-Old Legend. Utilising the archival formulation from the last batch ever produced, Spence first laid down marques for this project in 2005 and has been slowly accumulating enough liquid to bring the J Wray & Nephew 17 back to life. (A quick note on marques: a marque refers to one of a multitude of rum distillate recipes made by distilleries, which are later blended together to create the final product.)
“The Appleton Estate 17-Year-Old Legend is 100% pot still rum, developed using four very rare marques that were set aside to rest on the Appleton Estate. The selection of these four marques presented us with ten barrels, which also meant we were limited to releasing only 1,500 bottles globally. These specific marques have never appeared in any other Appleton Estate rum and will not appear again,” she explains. “In Jamaica, we say, soon come. And ‘soon come’ could mean now, weeks from now or even months from now. I call this a ‘soon come’ rum. We had to wait until the right moment and now it’s time.”
Bottles of the original J Wray & Nephew 17 have sold at auction for $50,000 in recent times
At a tasting at Kwãnt Mayfair, I sample the fruits of Spence’s labour. Even drunk neat, it’s a Mai Tai in a glass: the balance of richness and suppleness and a little Jamaican funk (think overripe bananas), gives way to vibrant citrus and this mown-grass freshness that lends the spirit a surprisingly clean finish for one so old. It’s nothing short of exceptional. I’m certain Trader Vic would approve.
Spence tells me that the secret to the J Wray & Nephew 17’s profile is its “sensual, smoky orange top notes” and a complex “funky cinnamon” base that provides an altogether unique palate. “Cinnamon is typical in Jamaican pot still rum, but funky cinnamon is extremely rare and unique,” she says. It was the greatest challenge of her career to capture this essence in a recipe of her own making. “The 17-Year-Old Legend has powerful aromas of funky cinnamon and nutmeg, leading to notes of rich caramelised pear and banana, mingled with warm nutty oak and floral herbs. On the palate we have a rich molasses taste, with a finish of delicately smooth warm oak, a complex sipping experience like no other.”
At £550 a bottle and with the UK’s provision almost entirely sold out, you might be thinking of that old Bullseye TV phrase, “This is what you could have won”, but the beauty of Spence’s recreation is it gives us a jumping off point for our own rum blend. Bartenders around the world have been formulating their own substitute for J Wray & Nephew 17, and now they have a frame of reference to draw on.
While I am no mixologist, I have been slowly perfecting my own recipe for the past three years. For starters, it’s only right that we use Appleton Estate as our base spirit. As Spence explained, J Wray & Nephew acquired Appleton Estate in 1916, and we can therefore assume that the 17-Year-Old was a blend of the Jamaican distillery’s marques. My suggestion is Appleton Estate 12-Year-Old (£45), an affordable age-statement rum that brings vivacious
citrus and spice to our blend.
Next, I’d suggest Smith & Cross navy-strength rum (£43.75), a heavy-bodied Plummer and Wedderburn style rum that brings some of that old-school Jamaican funk to proceedings. Its rich caramelised banana notes are a perfect addition to our Trader Vic imitation. Finally, I have found a great deal of success using a French Antilles 2020 Port Cask Grand Arome (£110), bottled by 1423 Single Barrel Selection for The Whisky Exchange. I know, I know, this is a pricey suggestion, but it’s not without precedent. Cate explains in Smuggler’s Cove how, as Trader Vic began to run out
of 17-year-old J Wray & Nephew, he created a blend of 15-year-old and 8-year-old rums, and then added a Martinique rum to deliver the desired “nutty and snappy flavour” Bergeron was after. This has become known as Trader Vic’s “Second Adjusted Formula”. The Martinique rum that Bergeron is referring to is up for debate, not least because the nuttiness he describes is not common to the rhum agricole style (made from fresh pressed sugarcane juice rather than molasses). Cate postulates that Trader Vic was referring to rhum traditionnel, rum made in the French islands from molasses, and not the recently pressed, fresh cane juice of rhum agricole.
The SBS French Antilles 2020 squares this particular box nicely. Like the Smith & Cross, its high ABV lends it some demonic potency, but its complex brown sugar and tropical fruit notes bring an added pep to the final blend. It’s incredible to think that 80 years ago, Trader Vic created a cocktail with a lasting legacy that would extend long past the heyday of Tiki culture and the life of its great proprietor. I have no doubt that Victor Bergeron would have a broad grin on his face knowing that, decades after its invention, the Mai Tai would still have bartenders arguing over what constitutes the perfect formula and, indeed, one immensely talented blender attempting to revive a vintage rum in his memory.
The truth is Trader Vic created the perfect conduit for channelling the virtues of rum. It doesn’t matter what rum you use, the Mai Tai has taken on a meaning far beyond the contents of a glass. It’s an escape, it’s a riddle wrapped inside of an enigma, it’s the memory of a bar culture that once thrived. So, grab some rum, add lime, a splash of curaçao, and orgeat, shake well with crushed ice, and tell a tale tall enough for one Victor Bergeon Jr. Cheers