by David Bartell, July 1999
On one business trip four travelers visited six countries in eleven days - Bob, Ted, Marcia, and myself. We had our mission, but I was secretly determined to discover the quintessential European Mai Tai between meetings, hotels and planes. Here are the mixed results of this quest, in reverse chronological order.
By the last leg of our journey, we were near exhaustion, and of all the countries we drove in, we got lost in the only one that speaks English. We careened hilariously through the countryside, trying to figure out which side of the road was the left side, until we found our hotel in Gerrard's Cross, northwest of London. We unwound thousands of miles of tension at a pub called The Packhorse. I was of a mind to pound a dented pewter mug on the bar and bellow, "Innkeeper! I would slake my thirst!" But all that came out was, "Begging your pardon, but can you make me a Mai Tai?"
"A what?" She'd never heard of a Mai Tai. By this time I'd begun to wonder if there ever was such a thing as a Mai Tai.
"It's a 'foo foo' drink," said a man from Chicago standing next to me. I was eventually able to persuade him that a Mai Tai was not as fruity as he thought, and that it was indeed an international standard. There is even a Trader Vic's in London, not to mention his home town. He backed down, but the bartender simply blinked at me.
I sighed and had a Carlsberg, on tap.
It hadn't been any better in Israel two days prior. We stayed at the Dan Accadia Hotel, which is a luxurious four or five star resort on the Mediterranean. The bar was closed for a private party from which Spanish songs joyously erupted, so we sat above the pool watching the surf in the dim light. There was a small portable bar in a sitting room from which a waitress brought drinks. My companions groaned when I yet again asked for a Mai Tai. No dice; the establishment wasn't even going to try to mix me one. Never heard of it, and no ingredients anyway.
At least two local beers are available in Tel Aviv, Maccabee and Gold Star. They are both good, but I preferred my Gold Star. There were palm trees about, but no breeze to make them sway.
Whether my luck had been better in Italy is open to interpretation. They did make me a Mai Tai, and there's nothing like a good Mai Tai. Unfortunately, this was nothing like a good Mai Tai. Like Israel, we were in the country less for than 24 hours. Five per cent of that time we were eating, ten per cent we were waiting for a rental car, twenty per cent in a meeting, thirty per cent sleeping. About twenty per cent driving or gassing up, and the rest was "airport overhead". Venice hovered beyond our schedule's grasp, a water taxi away.
I did manage to devote 2% to the bar in our hotel, the Viest Hotel in Vicenze, Italy. I had to recite a recipe. They didn't have all the ingredients, but they should have been close enough. They didn't know what an ounce was, and I was too tired to calculate centiliters, so I just used generic units. Let's call them "euros". The recipe ended up like this:
No one in Europe seems to use more than a cube and a half of ice in any mixed drink, the drink didn't stink because of Italian ice. Nor was it the ingredients, which were all good. Why did it stink? I don't know. I was preoccupied with the vain search for the other half of my second ice cube, thinking about next week's 30th anniversary of Apollo 11. Michael Collins went all the way to the moon but couldn't walk on it. Venice was my lost moon, and the Mai Tai as elusive as those wandering canals.
Castle-cruising the Rhine poses a drinker's dilemma. Does one partake of the famous Rhine wine, or one of the 3200 German beers variously available? I may be an exotic drink aficionado, but I'm no fool. I sampled plenty of both and avoided Budweiser, which is >choke< available. I also found time to seek out a good Mai Tai, which I did not find. But I came serendipitously close.
We were not far from Frankfurt, where I figured there should be a tiki bar or two. Bob's friend Werner, who works for Lufthansa, was late meeting us due to a fatal crash on a mountain above Katmandu. In time I asked if he knew if there were any tiki bars in the area. "Tiki bars?" he said. "Well, yes, there are some, but they are in a bad part of town..." We were in mixed company, and I could see that there was something Werner wanted to say, but he held back. As it happened, he didn't even know what a tiki bar was, but he assumed I was talking about another kind of bar that sounded like "tiki"! We all had a laugh.
On Saturday I cruised down the Rhine. I got off at Koblenz where they were staging a huge outdoor rock concert. An outdoor bar attracted lots of young Germans cooing "cocktails!" I ran across a Brazilian-trained German bartender named Rafael, of no fixed address. He works for Peras ("pears"), a sophisticated mobile bar which services events across Europe. They had a placard of specialty drinks tacked high on a tree, a well-stocked counter, with electric mixers, and little pizza ovens. Rafael had not only heard of a Mai Tai, but he knew several recipes by heart!
Problem was, he refused to make me one. Despite his impressive stock, he didn't feel he had the necessary components, especially almond flavoring. "What else can I get you?" I'll give him credit for insisting on a high standard of quality.
A lot of kids were drinking some promotional bottled junk called MiXery, which is a blend of beer, cola, and something called "X" from a local brewery. Pass. I ordered a Caipirinha, one of their specialties from Brazil. He put some lime slices and coarse brown and unrefined white sugar into a large old-fashioned and began grinding it with a pestle. Some shaved ice and lime juice, and a rum with which I wasn't familiar. It was "Cachaca 51" a Brazilian rum made not from molasses but from sugar cane. An excellent, refreshing drink for 10 Marks. I also had an Alcatraz, which was similar but with oranges and Cuerva Gold Tequila.
Over drinks and under sky, we talked good Mai Tai. In Brazil, he said, they use grenadine, which from now on, I'll place in the "foo foo" category. Instead of lime juice he personally uses apricot, or sometimes lemon, to make the drink more sour. We fascinated each other with our differing stories about where the Mai Tai originated. Rafael had heard that it originated in London, at a place called Pusser's, run by the same salts who smuggle Pusser's Navy Rum to the world. He'd heard of the London Trader Vic's, but didn't know the original was in San Francisco.
Just then the folks setting up for the concert drew a little more power, there was a loud pop, and the music died. Rafael's blender zapped and smoke poured out of it. That was my cue. I wandered off to photograph a cathedral. I accidentally stepped into a wedding, vows already in progress. Oops. I was tempted to say, "Y'all know where I can get me a beer?"
The first and only respectable Mai Tai success was on our first leg, at the Hotel Aida in Torrejon de Ardoz, a suburb of Madrid. On the streets, people strolled to outdoor cafes to eat dinner at 10, some with babies in strollers. Kids kicked a ball, lovers kanoodled, and everyone seemed to celebrate the evening. The hotel bar offered bridge mix, nuts, and pork rinds, not to mention Cuban cigars. None of the bartenders spoke English, but my passable Spanish was augmented by a fellow from Italy who helped translate as I jotted a prescription on a cardboard coaster. Business was slow, so although they never heard of a Mai Tai, they were willing to give it a go. In fact, they became eager for this new idea, and the whole episode entertained them greatly.
The recipe was 2 ounces of 3 aņos Cuban Aņejo rum (the second round used the darker 8 years rum), half an ounce of lime juice (syrup?), half an ounce of Cointreau, and a quarter ounce of Frangelica. The head bartender held his shaker ceremoniously next to his head, half-closed his eyes, and shook. It clacked rhythmically. "Ah, Flamenco!" I joked. He put a round lemon slice on the rim of the large stemmed glasses, and he sugared the rims, like a rum sidecar. A bit of sugar dripped into the glass bottom too. The Spanish Mai Tai was a splendid yellow variation. There was not enough ice, so it was a bit on the sweet side, but it had a nicely blended flavor. For a three star drink, this was unique. Ambience perhaps? Jet-lagged taste buds?
While his lovely assistant served us, the head bartender stole away with a reserve left in his shaker, to try it out for himself. The coaster bearing the recipe was also spirited away. We went out into the night, to trace the Spanish streets with Cuban smoke.
(c) 1999 by David BartellAll images and text appearing on these pages are copyright 2003 by Kevin Crossman, all rights reserved, unless otherwise noted. Reproduction or retransmission of this material in any form is prohibited without expressed written permission.