The tropics. White sand meets picturesque blue water. Palm trees heavy with coconuts, fields of sugar cane, sweet tropical fruit. A lack of seasons means flip-flops year round; a golden tan that never truly fades. So many of us daydream of a tropical island as our permanent home. There was a time in my life when I thought I was meant to be an islander; I was twenty. A year spent abroad on the shores of Australia had me convinced it was the way I was meant to live. Twenty years later as I approach forty, with two kids and a mortgage, it’s a daydream I sometimes still revisit; a “what if” that creeps in when days are long. As the depth of summer sends images of tropical locations across my social media feeds, I have been thinking about ways to bring its allure into my own life. What happened is I discovered the ways a couple of iconic Oakland names went after their own tropical dreams; the first of which was a man with a wooden leg who turned his Oakland watering hole into a Polynesian-themed empire.
Victor Bergeron, a Bay Area native born in 1902, opened a local restaurant with the help of $800 from his aunt in 1934. The spot was just across from his parents grocery store on the corner of San Pablo and 65th. Named “Hinky Dink’s”, the local watering hole was filled with tropical South Seas decor after Bergeron returned from a trip to Los Angeles and saw the success being had by future nemesis Don The Beachcomber. Stating in a 1977 interview that his success was due to “quality chow and quality booze”, he drew crowds in with gimmicks such as free lunch and amateur night, taking advantage of rock bottom Depression-Era prices. He even went so far as to let customers stick an ice pick in his wooden leg “just for kicks”, his amputation the result of a bout with tuberculosis as a child. Bergeron renamed the restaurant Trader Vic’s in 1939 after his wife felt the place needed a name with a bit more of a “story behind it”. She told him that since he was always trading things they should rename the place Trader Vic’s; a Polynesian empire was born. Menu’s from the original Oakland location even had a note at the bottom which stated “Ship Stores and Stuffs, Tahitian Curios, Tapa Cloths, Ships’ Models, Dried Heads, Stuffed Fish, etc., accepted by Trader Vic in trade for any of the above cargo.”
On a summer night in 1944, Bergeron was behind the bar chatting with friends visiting from Tahiti. He had already spent several years mixing exotic rum drinks for his customers, but he felt a new concoction was needed. As stated by the trader himself in an article published in 1970:
“I was at the service bar in my Oakland restaurant. I took down a bottle of 17-year-old rum. It was J. Wray Nephew from Jamaica; surprisingly golden in color, medium bodied, but with the rich pungent flavor particular to the Jamaican blends. The flavor of this great rum wasn’t meant to be overpowered with heavy additions of fruit juices and flavorings. I took a fresh lime, added some orange curacao from Holland, a dash of Rock Candy Syrup, and a dollop of French Orgeat, for its subtle almond flavor. A generous amount of shaved ice and vigorous shaking by hand produced the marriage I was after. Half the 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 Tahiti, who were there that night. Carrie took one 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”.”
So the story goes. Many have disputed this story, it has even gone to court. Don the Beachcomber namesake Donn Beach sued Bergeron over the dispute, claiming he had originated the drink in his Los Angeles bar in 1933. The suit was settled out of court in favor of Bergeron. As Tiki culture took hold through the 1950’s and 1960’s, Trader Vic’s success skyrocketed and 25 locations were added worldwide. Bergeron was asked to develop a line of drinks for Matson Steamship Lines for their various hotel chains such as Surfrider and Royal Hawaiian, and the version of the drink which includes pineapple juice became a popular variation.
As time went on, many of the original locations closed, and the flagship spot on San Pablo was moved to the Emeryville waterfront in 1972. The chain has rebound in recent years, with a handful of locations in the US and Europe, and more throughout the Middle East and East Asia. Victor Bergeron passed away in 1984, just a few weeks shy of the fiftieth anniversary of the Polynesian-themed empire he built.
The Mid-Century popularity of the Mai Tai eventually depleted stock of the 17-year-old rum Bergeron had designated as the key ingredient, so he shifted his recipe to include a blend of Jamaican and Martinique rum. As popularity continued to soar Bergeron developed his own rum blend and Mai Tai mix in attempts to re-create the perfect flavor balance he had achieved on that evening in 1944.
In an effort to infuse tropical vibes into my life this summer, I decided to take a stab at the original recipe. While I did not have 17-year-old rum on hand, I went with Appleton Estate Jamaican Rum. Orgeat syrup is most readily available today under the Torani brand, and I decided to make my own simple syrup; I used a 2:1 ratio to create a thick consistency to mimic what I can only assume the rock candy syrup of 1944 might have been like.
So while I continue to wear my flip-flops even on our foggy summer days, I thank folks like Victor Bergeron for bringing tropical flavors and tiki-themed fun into the Bay Area. It might not be a white sandy beach, but with my flip-flops kicked back on a Saturday afternoon when the sun came out, my backyard was a fine substitute once a Mai Tai was in-hand.
The Original Mai Tai Cocktail
This original recipe can be found in many places on the web, some vary just a bit from others. I chose to follow one listed in The Book of Tiki, modified slightly based on my rum choice.
2 ounces Jamaican rum (preferably aged)
1/2 ounce orange Curacao
1/2 ounce orgeat syrup (some recipes call for only 1/4 oz.)
1/4 ounce simple syrup (I used a 2:1 ratio, 2 cups of sugar to 1 cup of water – I added a tiny bit more after the initial shake for a bit more sweetness)
Juice of 1 lime
Shake ingredients together in a cocktail shaker with crushed ice. Serve with the lime shell and garnish with a mint sprig (which I didn’t have on hand).
Worth noting: consider these local spots to fulfill your need for a tropical drink in Tiki-inspired decor.
Trader Vic’s Emeryville – 9 Anchor Drive Emeryville, CA 94608
Kona Club – 4401 Piedmont Avenue Oakland, CA 94611
Longitude – 347 14th Street Oakland, CA 94612
Image of young Victor Bergeron behind bar – hulasmoderntiki.com
Image of older Victor Bergeron – Gifford’s Guide
Image of Hinky Dink’s – sourced via Local Wiki
Image of original Oakland Trader Vic’s exterior – sourced via Local Wiki
Image of original Oakland Trader Vic’s interior – SwellMap via flickr, used with permission
Image of old Trader Vic’s menu – sourced via Local Wiki