It will come as no surprise to rum lovers that a good Vic's Mai Tai is one of the my favourite standbys for the summer. Or indeed the spring. One can make a good case for drinking the odd one in winter too. However, save for a half-dozen jealously guarded bottles in the back of collectors' cabinets and, ahem, The Merchant Hotel, the venerable 17 year Wray Nephew rum, the drink's original base, has long been exhausted. The writer of one of my favourite blogs, A Mountain of Crushed Ice, (http://www.amountainofcrushedice.com/?p=1692) nobly charted his way across 14 Mai Tai's with 14 different rum combinations in order to find a perfect replacement for the lost Wray Nephew, a feat which my own rum collection is unfortunately not quite wide enough to match. Therefore I've tended to turn to the Appleton Estate range whenever I've craved the tropical hit of a good Mai Tai.
The Appleton Estate in Jamaica has been producing rum since the seventeenth century, but was purchased by Wray Nephew in 1916. They, the parent company, eventually introduced a full range of Appleton rums as a replacement for their old eponymous flagship brand, of which the only current survivor is the popular Wray Nephew Overproof (apparently too tough to kill off). Nowadays, these rums are the closest approximation to the original 17 year Wray Nephew, to which anyone without a spare ten grand and a sugarcane obsession will have access. I've compared a few of these rums both mixed in a Mai Tai and straight, but beforehand let's take a long at that famous old recipe.
Vic's Mai Tai
2 ounces Wray Nephew 17 year rum
Juice of one lime (about 3/4-1 ounce)
1/2 ounce De Kuyper orange curacao
1/2 ounce French orgeat (almond syrup)
1/4 ounce rock candy syrup (rich sugar syrup)
Shake with crushed ice and one of the spent lime halves and pour unstrained into a rocks glass. Garnish with a fresh mint sprig.
For this tasting, I've replaced the Wray Nephew with each Appleton rum, the curacao with cointreau, the commercial orgeat with homemade and added a dash of Angostura orange bitters to add a little spicy depth.
Affordable and reliable, Appleton V/X is the brand's benchmark mixing spirit, a blend of rums aged from 5 years to 10 years.
Straight: A bold nose of candied fruitcake. Fairly pungent flavour with plenty of spice and hints of citrus peel. Benefits from an ice cube or two.
In a Mai Tai: The rum comes through on first sip and the fruity notes combine harmoniously with the almond and orange sweetness. This is a good classic Mai Tai. Easy drinking and silky smooth with homemade orgeat.
Appleton 8 Year
A blend of rums aged for at least 8 years his rum is a definite step up from the V/X.
Straight: A more intense, seductive nose reminiscent with a hint of wood and burnt caramel. Delicious, spicy and full-flavoured in the mouth, with more oak and a sweet, lingering finish. The citrus of the V/X is replaced by moreish dried fruit.
In a Mai Tai: An excellent Mai Tai. A really excellent Mai Tai. Well worth making the upgrade, the flavours all seem a little richer and smoother without losing the refreshing, tropical hit. I actually tried this twice, once with a dash of Haitian Barbancourt rhum agricole to up the pungency, which worked extremely well.
Appleton 12 Year
An esteemed sipping rum, spirit purists may abhor the use of such a well-aged product in a mixed drink, particularly one with as many strong modifiers as the Mai Tai. However, the original recipe was designed around the flavours already present in an even more eminent rum and so it seemed churlish not to try.
Straight: Oak and molasses on the nose. Deep and rich on the tongue with dancing Christmas spices and honey. Delicious.
In a Mai Tai: Qualitatively distinct from but not necessarily better than the other two. Definitely richer and not quite as fruity, this felt less like a strong tiki punch and a bit more like a very dark, quirky daiquiri. Plenty of caramel and nuttiness. I slightly decreased the measures of lime juice and cointreau and left out the extra sugar syrup and bitters for this rendition, in order to really allow the rum to shine. Certainly tasty and a fine choice ; the older rum adds to the drink but it also imperceptibly detracts a little too.
Having sampled most of the Appleton range (apart from the 21 year, which I've not yet mustered up the will to buy), the Appleton 8 stood out as my favourite. This may go against the grain of Mai Tai lovers, who might argue that the drink merits the inclusion of as distinguished and complex a rum as possible, but the fresher flavour of a slightly younger rum appealed to me more. Unless cash or availability is a factor, go for the 8 yr. If either is however, the V/X is still a very good choice.
Finally, I ought to note that, unless you're planning to drink a lot of Mai Tai's, it can be fairly difficult to use up Appleton in drinks which truly make good use of its distinctive flavours. While it's definitely good straight and works pretty well in standard cocktails, I've included one of my own recipes here for a little mixing variation. This is a tweak of Dale DeGroff's Caipirissima D'Uva, a Caipirissima with grapes.
2 shots Appleton V/X or 8 Yr
1/4 shot falernum syrup
1/2 shot cinnamon sugar syrup
1 dash Angostura Bitters
3/4 lime cut into wedges
1/4 shot dark rum
If you've got time, you could infuse the rum with raisins by pouring a healthy glug of rum (500ml or so) over a jar of raisins and leaving for a couple of weeks. Otherwise: Muddle raisins and then the lime wedges in the base of a shaker and add the Appleton, syrups and bitters. Shake with crushed ice for about ten seconds and pour unstrained into a chilled rocks glass. Garnish with a lime wedge and float dark rum on the top of the drink.