Friday, December 14, 2012

The United Mai Tai

I know it's been several months since I started blogging here, and you may have noticed I'm yet to write a post about a Mai Tai. There's been plenty of talk about about miles and points, but any mention of the famed tropical drink has been absent...until now. This was a difficult post to write and I'm still mourning over what United did to my favorite cocktail. It's no coincidence that The United Mai Tai finally gets talked about here on Flashback Friday; that's because United no longer serves them. What they serve now is not worthy of talking about, let alone drinking, and it is certainly NOT a Mai Tai, despite what it may say on the product's packaging.
This is not a Mai Tai

The United Mai Tai was something special and it was good. It was a drink we all would get excited about prior to our flights to Hawaii, and before my drinking days, something my parents would even talk about on the trips we all made together when I was a kid. It was the perfect excuse to start drinking at 9am if you happened to be on the early flight. Along with the Halfway to Hawaii game, it was a little something extra that made flying to the islands on United memorable, and not just like any other routine domestic flight.

To fully understand what made the drink so special we need to go back in time. You may be surprised to learn that the Mai Tai in fact is not Hawaiian. The name is Tahitian, and the drink itself was invented in California in the 1940's by either Don the Beachcomber or a guy named Trader Vic, depending on which story you believe. The fact that Trader Vic's name made it onto the bottle of they serve today is unfortunate. After a quick google search I was able to uncover the original secret recipe:

The Original Trader Vic Mai Tai

  • 2 oz of 17-year old J. Wray & Nephew Rum over shaved ice
  • Add juice from one fresh lime
  • 1/2 oz Holland DeKuyper Orange CuraƧao
  • 1/4 oz Trader Vic's Rock Candy Syrup
  • 1/2 oz French Garnier Orgeat Syrup
  • Shake vigorously.
  • Add a sprig of fresh mint
So obviously United isn't going to serve us 17-year old rum and they never did. After seeing the way things are going at the airline post-merger, I doubt the ever will either. The Mai Tai has been adapted several times over the years, and the version we are familiar with today is probably closer to what the Royal Hawaiian came up with in the 1950's:

The Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai
  • 1/2 oz Orange Curacao
  • 2 oz Orange Juice
  • 1/2 oz lime juice
  • Dash Orgeat
  • Dash Simple Syrup
  • 1 oz Light Rum
  • 1 oz. Myers's Dark Rum
So again, most airplane galleys don't contain the most well-stocked bars, and I've never seen stuff like Orange Curacao and Orgeat (an almond flavored syrup) on any aircraft before. If you have, please let me know which airlines you're flying, because I want to come join you! What United did was to make the best of what they had on board. Of course there were a few key essential ingredients like a sugary mix, rum, pinneapple and cherry garnish, and a magic tiki dude swizzle stick- beyond that it was open to interpretation. With The United Mai Tai, you never knew what you were going to get. Sometimes it was really good. Other times it tasted like it had jet fuel in it. Maybe it did, but either way it got you to your destination just a little bit happier than when you first stepped on the airplane. Go ahead and call me a traditionalist, but when I think of the term "mixed drink", I feel that it should actually be "mixed", like something mixed with something else and put together by an actual person.

It took a little bit more research to come up with what United actually put in their Mai Tais (besides creativity), and thanks to this flyertalk thread, I think I figured it out, down to two variations. For now let's call them Version 1 and Version 2. Version 1, or the older incarnation, was made with Mr. & Mrs. T's Mai Tai mix, which is something I recall seeing on board several times. It also had Bacardi, a dark rum, and various other juices- sometimes lime, sometimes orange, and even possibly guava juice, but it's been a while, and possibly before I legally started drinking, since United served guava. The degree of "cloudiness" depended on how much juice there was. Version 2, the newer one, for sure contained at least two things: Trader Vic's mix (which is alright if you actually "mix" it with something) and a Myers's dark rum floater. The other ingredients were dependent on how much your flight attendant liked you and how long they had been working for the airlines. A good drink usually contained lime. A really good drink had more rum in it. Sometimes Version 2 had juice. Both drinks came with a pineapple, a cherry, and a magic tiki dude.

The Collection

The United Mai Tai
  • Mix- either Mr. & Mrs. T's or Trader Vic's
  • Rum- Bacardi and/or Myers's
  • Lime
  • Orange Juice (optional)
  • Pineapple, Cherry, and Magic Tiki Dude (very important)
So what went wrong? First the United Magic Tiki Dude disappeared. I can't really blame the airline for that, as any iconography having to do with the old United was to be either pillaged or burned after the merger. Now they just use the same blue Continental-branded swizzle sticks that go in any other drink. The pineapple and cherry garnishes are as hit-and-miss as the Halfway to Hawaii game nowadays, so don't get too excited about seeing them. The rum...the rum is gone! At least the good rum is gone; Continental doing business as United no longer stocks Myers's.

As I said before, the neon-yellow pre-made "stuff" that United serves today is not a Mai Tai. Not that there's anything wrong with Trader Vic's- I've even used it myself as an ingredient in some of my own recipes, but it's just not very good by itself. For a Mai Tai to be good it has to have a little something extra and/or something dark floating on it. I've used Captain Morgan before and while it wasn't great, it was acceptable. For a Mai Tai to be worthy of the name, it can't just be something straight from a bottle dumped over ice. At least Aloha Airlines would float some guava juice on their Trader Vic's before passing it off as a drink.  Towards the end they were much more cash-strapped than United is, but they still took pride in what they served to their customers. United just doesn't get it. Getting rid of the Myers's was undoubtedly a cost saving measure, and the last step in destroying a wonderful tradition. It was a tradition, that in my opinion, was the one thing they did really well, that truly set them apart from the competition.


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