Summer of Rum: Trader Vic’s Atlanta

If it is going to be the Summer of Rum then there must be a new tiki bar visit. So, a trip to Trader Vic’s Atlanta was in order!

Our summer travels this year included a visit to Gatlinburg, TN (a region that does NOT have anything close to a Tiki Bar). We decided to make a stop over in Atlanta on our way north to visit one of the last remaining Original Trader Vic’s locations (we visited the oldest remaining Vic’s in London last September – read about it here).

If you’re reading this blog then there is a good chance you already know that Victor Bergeron invented the Mai Tai in 1944 at the first Trader Vic’s in Oakland… so I will skip that history lesson. What I will say quickly is that Vic was definitely an innovator, creating possibly the first chain of themed restaurants in the U.S. During the rise of Tiki popularity in the 50s and 60s he grew to as many as 25 Trader Vic’s locations worldwide.

As the popularity of Tiki started to decrease into the 70s and 80s, the restaurants started to close their doors. Vic passed away in 1984 but there are 5 remaining Trader Vic’s locations from his lifetime… the aforementioned London location (the oldest), one in Munich, the flagship in Emeryville (took over for the 1934 original in Oakland in 1972), a location in Tokyo and our current location of interest, the Atlanta location, which opened in the Atlanta Hilton in 1976.

Like London, the location is in the basement… meant to keep with Vic’s vision of “escapism”. There are only certain elevators that head down to that level and it is a great experience to board from a busy lobby of a downtown Atlanta hotel and, when the doors open 1 floor below, feel as if you’ve been transported. Plenty of bamboo and tikis welcome you as you enter the location.

Different than most of my Tiki Adventures, this visit included my two sons (7 and 9) so sitting at the bar was not as much of an option. We were welcomed by the staff and brought to a nice table right in the center of the first room. Something to note about Vic’s in Atlanta is that it is HUGE! There are multiple rooms throughout the area, however the way it is set up makes it feel like a small, intimate space. In the middle of all the rooms you can view the two HUGE Chinese ovens.

We had a warm welcome by the waitstaff and GM Maurice. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to talk with Maurice. He has a long history with the Atlanta Hilton and a passion for Vic’s. He appreciates the original décor and his goal, as hard as it is to upkeep, is to try to keep things as original as possible. Him and his team were wonderful hosts for our entire visit, and they had a focus on my boys, which, any parent knows, is very appreciated.

Everyone ordered drinks, mocktails for the boys. I ordered the Trader Vic’s Mai Tai and Mrs. Trader ordered the Navy Grog. Here is where I’ll say that the Mai Tai was “fine”… but it was far from the best I’ve ever had. They use the Trader Vic’s branded mix… which I don’t know if I can blame them for… but fresh ingredients are always better and it is disappointing to see the “home of the mai tai” not stay true to Vic’s original recipe.

However, the Navy Grog was extremely delightful and the boys LOVE their Kona Cooler mocktails. They were excited that they were served in the Mai Tai style glasses (just like Mom and Dad). The Kona Coolers earned the rare Double Junior Coco Thumbs Up!

Mrs. Trader recommends the Navy Grog (Grog usually being her preferred tiki drink). She said it was very well balanced and the rum is not hidden.

I will now take a moment to say this… the food was AMAZING and WONDERFUL and all the good words! Everything we had was fantastic and if you’re looking for a great meal among Tiki history then head over there. Maurice started us with an amazing Cosmo Tidbits pupu platter and I couldn’t pick my favorite if you forced me to. Junior Trader 1 tried everything on it and loved it all… really digging the crab rangoon (a first time food for him). Junior Trader 2, less adventurous, recommends the bread with homemade peanut butter (claiming it also deserved a #cocothumbsup).

For main courses I ordered the Massaman Chicken Curry and Mrs. Trader went with the Signature Wood-Fire Chinese oven Filet. The curry was very good and came with this fun side-dish of “extra” so you were able to add whatever you like to your dish, however NOTHING could compete with the filet. It was tender and full of flavor! Once again, all the “good words” for food. I’m not sure that I know enough about the culinary arts to tell you what these Chinese ovens do differently to beef, however, whatever it is, it is WONERFUL.

The boys also enjoyed their meals and, I want to give another kudos to Trader Vic’s in that their children’s menu is not the standard chicken fingers and cheeseburgers. We like our boys to branch out when they can and they were able to a little with Vic’s menu. Junior Trader 1 went with the strip loin and Junior Trader 2 did the General Tao’s Chicken (without the sauce).

To cap off our meal, Mauice had mentioned a new Hot Buttered Rum recipe was coming to the menu soon so I had to give it a go… full on with fired overproof rum running down the skull mug. And, while we were playing with fire, the Junior Traders got their first Bananas Foster experience. It is hard to not be impressed by dessert prepared fireside with fire! The boys were invited to “help” in the foster experience and, as you can see, were blown away by their first time!

Overall, I would give our Trader Vic’s Atlanta experience two thumbs up… while the mai tai came up a bit short for me, everything else was outstanding! Maurice and his team were top notch and the food was definitely something to write home about. Somewhere I read that at its height Trader Vic’s was considered the best restaurant in the nation. Vic, while bring Tiki pop and Tiki drinks into our lives, he also invented Asian Fusion. That notion is evident in the food at Trader Vic’s Atlanta and there is plenty of hospitality to go with it. I hope that it continues to live on, bringing Vic’s legacy to future generations.

The Oldest Trader Vic’s – London

This year’s Anniversary trip was a big one… to celebrate 10 years we traveled over the “pond” to London for a week.

We did a TON of things and had an AMAZING time… but this blog’s focus is on Tiki and we had two great evenings that warrant tiki blog documentation.  The first was a visit to the oldest Trader Vic’s currently operating.  The London version of the Home of the Original Mai Tai opened its doors in 1963 and have been a part of Tiki History ever since.

Being in a large hotel (London Hilton-Park Lane) makes it easier to find than many newer tiki bars, that usually favor city outskirts or back alleyway entrances.  However, in true “tiki fashion”, you enter and immediately head down a winding staircase to escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city hotel. The decor is fantastic!  Wood, bamboo, lamps, canoes, all the things that you would expect to see in a historic tiki bar.

As a side note, this was my first visit to a Trader Vic’s establishment… yes, I had to go all the way to England to pay tribute to Vic.

As normal, we wanted to sit at the bar however that became a little bit of a challenge.  On one side of the bar there are 4 barstools in a space that really should only fit 3. While the other side of the bar has a lot more space, we were told it was reserved for a special event.  We chose to squeeze on to 2 of the 4 stools and while we were a bit crammed at first, it all worked out.

I, of course, had to start with a Vic’s Original 1944 Mai Tai. I’ve waited a long time to have one… however I might have to wait a bit longer.  While the drink was fine, it was not crafted how Vic would have wanted.  The biggest issue is that they used Mount Gay Rum… I have nothing against Mount Gay, but Vic used a Jamaican Rum.  I’m a realist, I know that 17 year J. Wray & Nephew is long gone, however I believe that an “Original 1944 Mai Tai” should still feature an aged Jamaican rum.

I didn’t let this disappointment sour our evening but I was a bit taken back.  Speaking of sour, Mrs. Trader really enjoyed her London Sour… created for the opening of Trader Vic’s London.

We indulged in some bar bites, including the Beef Cho-Cho which are soy-sake glazed beef skewers that you finish yourself over a flame.  They were both fun and delicious.

We also had the opportunity to experience a number of different drinks including the Suffering Bastard, Navy Grog, Trader Vic’s Sling and some anniversary extras (including some drink tastings and a delicious cake).

In the tiki world I feel like it is important to be kind but also be honest among friends… I wasn’t blown away by the drinks from the menu, however our bartender, Aleks, was given free reign to mix us each up something based on our pallets and both drinks he was SPOT ON!  Aleks was a great bartender… he was funny, engaging, wanted to know about us.  It was wonderful to be able to sit at the bar and discuss rum, tiki drinks and Trader Vic with him.  He was excited to learn about my home tiki bar and our tiki travels.

Also, we had the opportunity to talk with the Assistant GM, Guy, who too was wonderful to talk with.  Both gentlemen were very welcoming… both welcoming us to Trader Vic’s as well as to London (as it was our first night).  Guy even allowed us a parting gift of a menu to bring back to Trader Jay’s.

Overall, I would never steer anyone away from Trader Vic’s London.  We had an AMAZING evening!  The decorations are wonderful!  They are quintkicensial tiki from one of the ORIGINALS, there is a bit of everything and I want to take it all back to Trader Jay’s.  The team is warm and welcoming and offers an amazing escape from the very Non-Tiki London.  The drinks from the menu were fine but chat with your bartender and let them get creative and you should be pleased!

(Special Note to Guy if he is reading… I’m still disappointed that the camera wasn’t charged for the wall of tiki!)

Becoming a Pretend Rum Connoisseur

My Rum and Tiki journey has reached a year and what a ride! I’ve learned to much but still have a long way to go! As I sit on the Beach down in Key Biscayne (island off Miami) I sip a frozen mojito (highly recommended) and reflect on my learnings so far.

I figure the gateway to the Caribbean is as good a place as ever to summarize my lessons thus far.

So, in no particular order…

  • If the drink menu says “Mai Tai = spiced rum and fruit juices” then that is a hard pass! I can accept a slight variation from Trader Vic’s Original Recipe but it better have fresh juice and aged, quality rum.
  • There is no substitute for fresh squeezed lime juice (or my special Frozen squeezed juice).
  • Finding a quality rum at the basic bar is near impossible. Main stream bars haven’t caught on… most just carry Bacardi, Captain Morgan and then they think they are fancy if they have Meyers.
  • I’ve tried a decent number of rums over the past year but still think Appleton Estate Reserve is my favorite multi-use mixing rum. It is the go to for my Mai Tai and many other drinks.
  • For sipping, still keeping Plantation 20th anniversary on the top of the shelf (though I won’t lie that Zacapa is working its way up).
  • If you are lucky enough to find a bartender who knows rums then talk as much as you can to them! They will share what they like and will enjoy the conversation enough, usually, to let you sample.
  • Overproof rum doesn’t have to taste like rubbing alcohol… get some Plantation OFTD! It is a powerful ally (in the right quantities).
  • There is never enough self space in an at home-Tiki-Bar-in-progress.
  • Always buy the Tiki mug that comes with the drink, you’ll regret it if you don’t.
  • Take your time and measure your drinks… you wouldn’t make a soufflé by just eyeballing it, don’t compromise on a perfectly crafted cocktail.
  • Your tiki bar will never be finished… both decorating and stocking with rum/liquor/mixers.
  • The Tiki Community takes care of their own! Thank you to Trader Vic’sFlorida Mermaid Rum, the staff at the Marriott Denver South and Diplomatico Rum for their support.

So there ya go, some of the lessons in Trader Jay’s first year! Here’s to many more Tiki-rific years to come!

Tiki Mugs: More than a Drink Vessel

Brought to you by Trader Vic’s Flagship Restaurant (Emeryville, CA)

So you’ve taken the time to read about my private Tiki Bar… and maybe you’ve even taken that next step to experience one of the amazing Tiki Bars I’ve mentioned or reviewed but how will everyone know that you really went?  The TIKI MUG, of course!

No one knows exactly what the first tiki mug was but it is estimated it dates as far back as the late 50’s.  Since then collecting Tiki Mugs has been a pastime of many a Tiki Fan.

Here is what Wikipedia has to say about Tiki Mugs:

Tiki mugs are large ceramic cocktail mugs which originated in tiki bars and tropical themed restaurants. The term “Tiki mugs” is a generic, blanket term for sculptural drinkware that depict Polynesian, mock-Polynesian, or tropical themes. Tiki mugs are not commonly seen outside tiki bars and restaurants, but are also a kitsch collectors item.

 In building an at home Tiki Bar, having a good Tiki Mug collection is important.  They are not only vital to the bar’s décor but they also serve as great conversation pieces.  I won’t pretend that my Tiki Mug collection is the most extensive out there… BY FAR… but I think it is well on its way.  (Now, if you ask Mrs. Trader she will say that I’m almost at Tiki Mug capacity, but I say you can always add more shelves.)

My first Tiki Mug was actually a gift from my lifelong friend, Andy.  Following our first trip to the famed Mai Kai he bought me a pair of the famed Barrel O’ Rum barrels.  They probably are closing in on 15 years old by now and still an important part of my Tiki Mug collection.

Things just taste better in a barrel! – Andy


Following my barrels, the Tiki Mug collection grew very little until my first trip to the magical Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto.  This was the point in which I decided to build my Tiki Bar (read about it here) and I knew the mugs would be an important part of this new journey.  After only two visits to Trader Sam’s (and thanks to the generosity of two more lifelong friends, Rick and Goat) I had all the Grog Grotto Tiki Mugs.  The collection was well on its way!


Next came trips to other tiki establishments, including Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar in Anaheim, Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago and Latitude 29 in New Orleans.  And, to prove I went, drank and enjoyed, I made sure that at least one mug came back to Trader Jay’s with me.


Another thing that I’m finding about becoming a known “Trader” to friends is that I’ve also been fortunate to be gifted Tiki Mugs and tiki barware along the way.  Mugs from Smuggler’s Cove were gifts and there is a great story surrounding one of my mugs from Three Dots and a Dash.  Also, the friend who convinced me to start this blog was kind enough to gift two tiki glasses from Lost Lake in Chicago (a bar I have yet to experience).


Other big additions to my Tiki Mug collection are not from a Tiki Bar at all.  Some might say that they aren’t TRUE Tiki Mugs but with how awesome and unique they are I don’t particularly care.  They are the first release of Geeki Tikis by Beeline Creative (sold on ThinkGeek).  Being such a HUGE Star Wars fan, these Tiki Mugs are the perfect way to bring a little modern pop culture into Trader Jay’s (plus the kids love using them).


Finally, the most recent addition to my Tiki Mug collection (and chief reason for this blog topic)… Tiki Mugs directly from the home of the “Creator”, Trader Vic’s.  This is the Tiki Bar at the VERY TOP of my “must visit” list, however the wonderful and generous staff at Trader Vic’s was kind enough to provide Trader Jay’s with three of their iconic Tiki Mugs.  I plan to one day visit and order a drink housed in each mug (as well as an Original Mai Tai, of course).


So there is my Tiki Mug collection story.  I’m happy with how it has grown and plan to continue to grow it.  If you want to help me add to it, I’ll always allow that… The Trader isn’t picky.  And if you are in the San Fran area or Atlanta, be sure to visit my friends at Trader Vic’s!

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Our House Cocktail: The Coco Nut

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Coco Nut will be going through a re-invention soon using different rums… stay tuned for the Coco Nut 2.0 (but feel free to read about how the original came to be)…

As my (fake) tiki bar started to come together I figured that all great, well visited bars need a House Cocktail… something that people feel like they MUST have in order to get the full experience. If you go to Trader Vic’s, you know that you have to order a Mai Tai… when you visit Don’s, and now Latitude 29, you cannot leave without tasting a Zombie… you need to bring a few friends to the Mai Kai to make sure you can order the Mystery Drink… and you should make it a goal to give Smuggler’s Cove’s secret recipe Rum Barrel a try.

So, a few months back I set out to make such a drink.  I started much the same way that the Rum Runner was invented down at the Holiday Isle Tiki Bar in Islamorada, Florida, by focusing on what rum I had a plethora of.  However, different from the Rum Runner (which was trying to move inventory out), I wanted to make sure I was using rums that I would always have on hand.  The first rum was pretty obvious to me… a Coconut Rum… this was obvious for a few different reasons:

1) I love coconut
2) my last name is Cocorullo so anything with a “coco” wins in my book and
3) I could use the “coco” as part of the drink’s name.

I use Cruzan Coconut Rum… I enjoy that it is made in the U.S. Virgin Islands and can usually pick up a few bottles for cheap when visiting St. Thomas.

I wanted at least one more rum and my 1.75L bottle of Kraken Black Rum was staring me right in the face. (I love it for my Dark and Stormys.) I figured the Black would be a nice contrast to the clear Coconut.

Now that I decided on the rum, it was time to take my first real stab at “mixology”. I decided to use Vic’s Mai Tai recipe as my road map and see where that would take me.

I took the lime juice and replaced it with pineapple juice (seemed like a good start). Then I looked at the demerara simple syrup and decided not to change out anything there.  Next on the list was the orange curacao, which I didn’t have in stock at the time.  I did, however, have Grand Marnier. I figured bringing it up a notch couldn’t hurt.

Now I had my rums, I had my sweet, I had my sour(ish) and had a slightly different orange flavor… which left the orgeat (almond).  I didn’t want to just use orgeat… then it really just would be a coconut/pineapple mai tai and that was not what I was going for.  After pulling out every bottle under the bar, I looked up at one of my decorative shelves and there, like a shining beacon of tiki-ness, was my beautiful bottle of Trader Vic’s Macadamia Nut Liqueur.  (My wife and I discovered the Macadamia Nut liqueur about a year ago where we bought it for our tiki/Christmas/housewarming party and it has been a staple since.)  I thought, “orgeat is made from almonds… almonds are nuts… macadamias are nuts… how can this not work?”

The addition of the Trader Vic’s Mac Nut made it all come together as a nice little package and led to the simple but ideal name for the House Drink of Trader Jay’s.  It is not an extremely original name but it fits perfectly… The Coco Nut

I tweaked the amounts a little during the first few mixes (the Kraken was overpowering at first, and not allowing the coconut and macadamia nut to shine through). But after about three tries I nailed it!

The finished product… using the perfect tiki mug for it from Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29

So come on by, check out our menu (yes, I have ONE copy) and read through the options… but then order a Coco Nut because, of course, you will feel like you have to!

RECIPE:
-3/4 oz pineapple juice
-1/4 oz Mai Tai Simple Syrup
-1/4 oz Trader Vic’s Macadamia Nut Liqueur
-1/2 oz orange curacao (or other preferred orange liqueur)
-1 oz coconut rum
-1/2 oz Kraken Black Rum

Shake it all together and serve over ice (preferably in a coconut shaped tiki mug).

(Give it a try and then reach out and let me know your thoughts.)

Behind the Bar: Mai Tai Roa Ae!

In my first post about mixing my own exotic cocktails I figure there is no better place to start than with the most famous tiki drink ever… The Mai Tai!

There are verying stories about the creation of the Mai Tai but the most widely accepted one is from the Original Trader, Trader Vic…

“I was at the service bar in my Oakland restaurant. I took down a bottle of 17-year old Jamacian J. Wray Nephew rum, added fresh lime, some Orange Curaçao from Holland, a dash of Rock Candy syrup and a dollop of French Orgeat, for its subtle flavor. A generous amount of shaved ice and a vigorous shaking by hand produced the marriage I was after. Half a lime shell went in for color, I stuck in a branch of fresh mint and gave two of them to Ham and Carrie Guild, friends from Taihiti, who were there that night. Carrie took a sip and said, ‘Mai Tai – Roa Ae’. In Tahitian this means ‘Out of this World – The Best’. Well that was that. I named the drink ‘Mai Tai’.”

Unfortunately the popularity of the Mai Tai created a run on the 17-year Wray and it is no longer in existence. Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove believes that to create a taste similar to Vic’s original you should use a “blended, aged” rum (meaning of blend of the pot and column distilling methods and aged between 4 and 14 years). I experimented with a few different rums but found my favorite to be Appleton Estate Reserve Blend from Jamacia.

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Tiki Drummer guarding the Appleton Estate Reserve Rum closely!

Prior to this journey I’m not sure I would have said this but Fresh Fruit Juice makes a HUGE difference! So I now only use fresh squeezed lime in my Mai Tai. I also make my own Simple Syrup to keep as many ingredients homemade as possible. (I have not tackled my own Orgeat yet, but maybe in the future.)

My Homemade Mai Tai simple syrup (demerara suger, water and a dash of vanilla extract) and Fresh Lime.

Below is my adaption of Vic’s Original Mai Tai using guidance from Smuggler’s Cove… Give it a go and let me know what you think or put your own adaptation in the comments.

  • 3/4 oz FRESH lime juice
  • 1/4 oz Mai Tai simple syrup
  • 1/4 oz orgeat
  • 1/2 oz Orange Curaçao
  • 2 oz Appleton Estate Reserve Rum

Shake all ingredients vigorously with ice, pour over crushed ice and garnish with mint and/or lime.

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Finished product in the HippopotoMai-Tai tiki mug from Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto

Looks like Mai Tai Roe Ae to me! (Tastes like it too!)

Mahalo, Trader Vic