Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | February 26, 2009

Brush Up On Your Tiki History

Via Trader Tiki, I see that Doug of The Pegu Blog has a great series of posts on the history of Tiki. As I’ve written before, I am a fan of tiki culture but have never really gotten into the drinks in the same way I’m into more classic cocktails. That said, I dig learning more about the history when I can.

Doug’s posts on the elders of tiki, Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic Bergeron, are great biographies of these master drinkmakers. Doug shows that both used intense business savvy and a love of entertaining to basically create tiki culture on their own. As rivals, they together built a drinking subculture that spread like crazy across America in the middle part of the 20th century.

Most interesting, though, is Doug’s efforts to figure out which of the two elders really deserves credit for creating the Mai Tai. I’m hesitant to share Doug’s conclusion, as he makes a very strong case as to whether Don or Vic’s recipes should be taken as the original Mai Tai. But I’ll quote a passage of the beginning of Doug’s balancing of sides in the Mai Tai fight:

Don claims to have first served his Mai Tai in 1933, an assertion that is repeated as fact by his partisans, and spoken with skepticism by Vic’s gang. No one seems to have any historical evidence of this. Not a menu, a celebrity diary entry, nothing. I suspect that if there was, it would always be front and center in the debate. Vic states he invented it in 1944. That’s a pretty big discrepancy.

We should remember that a well made Mai Tai is the best Tiki drink that ever was poured. Period. Of that, partisans on both sides emphatically agree. Or at least I think so, so that makes it fact.

In the late thirties, these men were the hippest things going in California’s two great cities, and shared a huge percentage of their clienteles. If Don had this killer libation in his bag of tricks and Vic didn’t, why is this not common knowledge, rather than uncommon controversy? Of course, we who live today in the age of the Internet and mass media are a little out of touch with how slowly and imperfectly information used to travel.

Doug makes a very well argued case overall and frankly I’ll just say that I agree with where he ends up, based both on how he presented the history of the Mai Tai and what little I already knew about the drink’s origins.



  1. Thanks for the mention!
    Actually, I thought I was a bit of a weasel with my conclusion
    Also, I stayed away, deliberately, from contemporary analysis of the Mai Tai debate. Folks like Beach Bum Berry have made a much deeper examination of the issue than I have, obviously.
    I have to admit that many times as I was outlining and writing this piece, I was scolding myself for using too much logic and not enough evidence for my thoughts, then going with that anyway!

  2. Well at worst I’m being charitable because I agree with you. So sue me.

    Still, it was a great series of posts and really enjoyable histories of Tiki, especially for someone like me who has cursory knowledge but didn’t know much about the biographies of Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber.

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