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Rum’s Holy Grail: Appleton Recreates The Rum Used In The First Mai Tai

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In the fall of 1944, a bartender in Oakland created a new rum cocktail. The bartender was Victor Bergeron, better known as “Trader Vic,” owner of what was soon to become the most famous tiki bar in the world. And the drink was the Mai Tai, one of the most celebrated and delicious cocktails of the last century. Today, there are countless “Mai Tais” out there, each with its own recipe and specifications. Even Trader Vic changed and adapted his version multiple times during his lifetime. For decades, rum enthusiasts, tiki fans and cocktail historians have endeavored to recreate Bergeron’s original Mai Tai, widely considered the “big bang” of tropical cocktails. But there’s a catch — the key ingredient, Wray & Nephew’s 17 Year Old Jamaican rum, hasn’t been commercially available since shortly after the Mai Tai came into existence.

Until now.

Appleton Estate, Jamaica’s oldest and best-known rum distillery, will be releasing Appleton Estate 17 Year Old Legend this June. It’s not just a recreation of the flavor profile of the original J. Wray & Nephew 17. It uses a quartet of rare distillates, known as marques, that come as close as possible to replicating the holy grail of rum.

Unraveling A Liquid Mystery

Very little is known in the rum community about J. Wray & Nephew’s “17 Years Old Liqueur Rum,” as it reads on the label, including when the company stopped producing it. According to Joy Spence, Appleton’s legendary master blender, an aged rum using the original Wray & Nephew marques was still being made as late as 1981, the year she started with the brand — decades later than has commonly been thought. “It was produced as Trader Vic’s Personal Selection,” she remembers. “We used to export it in bulk to Trader Vic’s.” Spence was “really taken off my feet with the amazing flavor profile and the complexity of this rum. I researched into the history [and] spoke to the master blender, because he was integral in the first production.” Indeed, Spence’s predecessor, Owen Tulloch, joined Wray & Nephew in 1945 — a year after Vic Bergeron created his seminal Mai Tai, but before the company stopped bottling the 17 year old expression.

In the wake of the tiki revival and cocktail renaissance that began at the turn of the millennium and continues today, rum connoisseurs have been clamoring for Spence to take a shot at recreating the fabled liquid. “I’d tell them in Jamaican language, ‘soon come,’” she says, laughing. “Soon come means later. Today, tomorrow. As time went on, I started to refer to it as a ‘soon come rum.’”

But unbeknownst to the rum community, Appleton had actually distilled and laid down the marques in 2005, with the intent of recreating the fabled Wray & Nephew 17. Spence recalls, “We had the formulation in [Owen Tulloch’s] formula book. He would print long sheets of paper, and then he would cover them with pieces of cardboard that he took from the boxes we shipped the rums in. Then he would punch two holes and tie it with a nice ribbon and that would be our formula book! Those formulas are actually in our archives stored with our legal department.”

One And Done: Why This Rum Won’t Be Made Again

The original 17 year old expression was a blend of four marques. “We had the formulation, we had the specification, so we know what the technical composition was, and what the sensory flavor profile is,” Spence says. “We worked assiduously to develop these special marques of rum.” It was no easy feat. “When you’re developing a new blend, you just have the ability to be able to select all different marques and create distinctive flavor profiles. When you’re recreating a product. It’s a completely different ballgame. It’s very technical, very difficult to make sure I can get those flavor profiles as close as I can to the previous product. And so it was, to me, the most difficult task.”

One of the four marques bedeviled Spence: “There’s one particular marque that is so unique, and you had to set the ferment in a particular way and distill in a particular way, which is not what we’re doing now for the other estate marques.” By 2022, after 17 years of aging, a mere 10 barrels’ worth remained, enough for 1,500 bottles worldwide. Spence says that recreating J. Wray & Nephew 17 was difficult enough that it won’t be repeated, making 17 Year Old Legend almost as much of a collectors item as the original.

Legend 17 is entirely pot distilled, reflecting what was in Wray & Nephew 17 (Appleton Estate’s current lineup consists of blends of pot and column-distilled rums). It was distilled entirely at Appleton Estate — the same, Spence says, as the original Wray & Nephew 17, the name notwithstanding: “In that period, Wray & Nephew was better known than Appleton Estate.” Appleton, which has been producing rum since 1749, was purchased by J. Wray & Nephew, which owned multiple distilleries, in 1916, and its rums weren’t widely released under the distillery’s own name for decades. As for the new name, Spence says, “We want it to be true to Appleton Estate.” It was aged in Jamaica in ex-bourbon American oak barrels, which likely differs from how the original “Trader Vic rum” was aged. The 17-year-old bottled by Wray & Nephew in 1944 would have been laid down during Prohibition, in which case there wouldn’t have been many ex-bourbon barrels in circulation.

How To Recreate The Trader Vic’s Mai Tai

That said, Appleton Estate Legend 17 lives up to Trader Vic’s description of the rum he used to make the first Mai Tai: “Surprisingly golden in color, medium bodied, but with the rich pungent flavor particular to the Jamaican blends.” That pungency is most obvious on the nose, a huge, powerful, lightly funky aroma that makes its presence felt as soon as the bottle is opened. Bottled at 49% ABV, the palate is rich and spicy, with notes of clove and allspice underpinned by a honeyed sweetness, and a dry, lightly oaky finish. Mai Tais aside, this is a spectacular sipping rum that’s quite unlike anything Appleton Estate is currently producing.

As for replicating Trader Vic’s original Mai Tai… that’s a bit tricky. Bergeron described it thus: “I took a fresh lime, added some orange curaçao from Holland, a dash of Rock Candy Syrup, and a dollop of French Orgeat, for its subtle almond flavor.” Matt Pietrek, rum/cocktail historian and author of the book Modern Caribbean Rums, opines, “Any attempt to replicate that Mai Tai is piling guess upon guess upon guess upon guess. Even if we had the exact ingredients, how much of each? How much is a dollop? Plus, a liqueur or syrup’s flavor can change over the decades even if the label doesn’t. All this is why I don’t fret over trying to replicate the perfect Mai Tai — its foundational ingredients/flavors were never faithfully recorded.”

Two Mai Tai Recipes: Hold The Pineapple Juice

That said, for those seeking to get as close to the historical artifact as possible, there’s an “original” recipe, or at least an early one, that’s circulated over the decades and is currently seen on the Trader Vic’s website. In addition to 2 ounces of 17 Year Old Legend (or J. Wray & Nephew’s original, if you happen to have a bottle — and if you do, please call me ASAP), use the following:

.5 oz. Holland DeKuyper Orange Curaçao

.5 oz. French Garnier Orgeat

.25 oz. rock candy syrup (there’s one sold by Trader Vic’s)

Juice from one whole lime

Hand shake and garnish with half a lime shell, sprig of fresh mint [glassware and type of ice are not specified].

Appleton Estate’s Mai Tai recipe makes a delicious drink in its own right:

2 oz. Appleton Estate 17 Year Old Legend

.5 oz Fresh squeezed lime juice

.5 oz. Orange curaçao (my go-to is Pierre Ferrand’s)

.5 oz Orgeat (there are plenty out there; I like Monin’s)

Combine in a shaker filled with ice (crushed and cubed). Shake well and chill. Pour into a double old fashioned glass. Garnish with one lime shell and fresh mint sprig (to resemble an island with palm trees).

Joy Spence says, “When I made the Mai Tai with this rum. I tell you, I was in heaven. I sat in my garden and I said this is most amazing Mai Tai ever.” She also suggests using an ounce and a half of rum instead of two ounces, because of Legend’s higher proof. And with a suggested retail price of $500 for one of the 1,500 bottles available, it makes sense to stretch the supply as much as possible.

You may notice that neither recipe calls for using pineapple juice, or any juice besides fresh squeezed lime juice. That’s because the Mai Tai was created to highlight the rum, not bury it — and it’s why the rum used is so important.

Appleton Estate 17 Year Old Legend will be available at select retailers worldwide in June. Starting today (May 17), 36 NFTs redeemable for a bottle of the legendary rum will be made available through Whatever your opinion of NFTs, it’s a way to acquire one of the most coveted and desirable rums in recent memory.

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Renato Molo
Royal Rum Society Rummelier®

Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne graduated

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