A successful tropical cocktail can have a million mothers. Take the mai tai. Vic Bergeron—the Vic of Trader Vic’s, the kitschy restaurant chain that helped popularize an imaginary rendering of Polynesian culture for wistful mainlanders—asserted that he had invented the rum drink. Any suggestion otherwise, Bergeron said, aggravated his ulcer, adding, “Anybody who says I didn’t create this drink is a dirty stinker.” On the opposing court, we have the tiki-bar progenitor Don the Beachcomber, who was born Ernest Gantt, but was so infatuated by his Don the Beachcomber persona that he legally changed his name to Donn Beach. Beach claimed that the mai tai was his brainstorm. We may never truly know who to thank/blame for the mai tai, especially since recipes can’t be copyrighted, and, in the mid-nineteen-forties, when it first appeared on bar menus, there was such a rage for anything that signalled the fantasy version of island culture (including cocktail glasses adorned with sacred cultural symbols) that bartenders all over were probably sloshing together rum and lime and coconut to catch the wave.
On the other hand, it is an uncontested fact that, in 1957, Harry Yee (1918-2022) created the Blue Hawaii (rum, vodka, blue curaçao, pineapple juice, and sweet-and-sour mix). Yee was tending bar at the Hawaiian Village, which was larger than most hotels in the United States outside of Las Vegas. The Hawaiian Village, which had begun as a small collection of low-rise tourist huts, had been expanding to accommodate the new swell of tourism that was under way. At the time, it could still be a slog to get to Hawaii, but Americans were determined to see the paradise that servicemen returning from the South Pacific had raved about, and they wanted sweet, sultry cocktails to accompany the experience.