In late March, Fremont Hills Country Club hosted an outrageous Ladies Night. The theme, a Polynesian luau, was the brainchild of the club’s general manager, Scott Domnie. Early in the planning, Scott approached me and suggested we both bring our best Mai Tai to the party and let the ladies be transported to their favorite South Pacific getaway.
I put on my thinking cap and decided that rather than serve two different versions of the Mai Tai, we should bring a second drink that evokes the islands. I searched the Internet, queried bartenders and thumbed through several of my favorite books for a cocktail that could be mass-produced easily.
Scott had picked the Mai Tai because it’s synonymous with vacationing in the tropics, and because the drink’s story is so fascinating. Many believe the first Mai Tai was mixed at the original Trader Vic’s in Oakland in the mid-1940s, but others argue this concoction first was made at Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood back in the mid-1930s. Either way, ironically, this tropical sensation’s origins appear to be stateside.
I have traveled quite a bit throughout the South Pacific and the Caribbean, and one thing holds true – while the scenery may change, the climate and the drinks rarely do. Resort drinks are what we pick when we throw all care to the wind, forget the calories and go for pure, sweet taste. They are loaded with fruit, cream, sugar, may be frozen and likely pack a punch.
And some are even blue, a color usually achieved by adding Curacao, a liqueur named after the Caribbean island where the bitter, inedible laraha fruit grows. The peel of the laraha is soaked in alcohol and coloring is added, usually blue. The taste is similar to an orange liqueur. It’s been around since the late 1800s and was used widely to beautify a drink.
Why the need to beautify a drink or mix the booze with other flavors? Initially, most liquors were made for medicinal purposes and tasted pretty terrible. But they were, like wine, quite regional. Because most spirits are distilled from grains, they derived from locally grown grains. Rye was hearty and typically grown in areas too cold for wheat to flourish. Gin, a rye-based, neutral spirit that is redistilled with juniper berries or other botanicals, was cheap and quite easy to make. It was distilled at home in Northern Europe and dates back to the 1600s in Holland and England.
The Dutch and the Brits sailed off to colonize the New World, and gin started to make its way around the globe.
Gin was part of the American scene before Prohibition and remains one of the homemade spirits along with moonshines, bourbons and whiskeys. One of its best attributes comparatively – it requires no aging like its Kentucky (Bourbon) and Tennessee (Whiskey) brethren.
But gin was hard to stomach, ushering in the advent of the cocktail. Bartenders started mixing spirits with juices, tonics and sodas. This accelerated during Prohibition, when the homemade, unregulated booze was generally undrinkable.
Some would argue that the modern cocktail culture stems from the early 1930s through World War II. The “tiki” culture took off simultaneously, as Americans were stationed overseas and began to travel to islands near and far for vacations. It only makes sense that we imported our favorite libations. Mixers proved plentiful on the islands – coconuts, pineapple, papaya, lemons and limes.
This got me thinking. If most of the cocktails we currently drink in the tropics didn’t originate there, why not look at other cocktails that date back to the ’30s and ’40s in American cocktail history? A heavyweight on the cocktail scene at the time was gin. Most of us don’t associate gin with tropical drinks, even though gin’s botanicals are a perfect accent. A gin cocktail would be a neat alternative to the rum-based Mai Tai that Scott was making.
I ultimately chose a South Pacific Breeze as my drink for Ladies Night. I mixed 1 1/2 shots of gin with fresh lemon juice and Simple Syrup to taste, a 3/4-shot of Galliano liqueur and a touch of blue Curacao to give it the color of an ocean reef. I collected more than 200 locally grown lemons from the backyard of friends, made my own syrup and served up an island holiday in a glass. All I was missing was someone handing me fresh towels.