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Long before the internet, before bartenders went viral on TikTok, and before press outlets decided on (and debated) drinks of the summer, a new cocktail had to rely on its own merits alone to reach superstardom.
The world of cocktails is pretty crowded. Manhattans, martinis, and sidecars — not to mention the old standbys like rum and Coke — are all competing for dominance at bars across the globe.
With so much competition, how does a new cocktail get popular? When does it stop being one bar’s specialty and start being something you can find just about anywhere? One answer can be found in the history of the Mai Tai.
You might be surprised to learn that the Mai Tai was invented fairly recently, back in the 1940s. If you love this summery delight, you have one person to thank: Vic Bergeron, AKA the iconic Trader Vic.
Trader Vic’s is a nearly ninety-year-old brand that became an international favorite during the mid-twentieth century thanks to its chain of ultra-popular restaurants.
If you grew up in the seventies, you’ll know Trader Vic’s well. And if you didn’t, allow us to introduce you to the brand responsible for the Mai Tai, the crab rangoon, and so much more.
Have You Heard of Trader Vic’s Inventions?
You know a business has reached untold success when its inventions take on a life of their own, reaching levels of fame no one could have predicted. Imagine a world without Mai Tais — we shudder just thinking about it.
Here’s a quick overview of some of Trader Vic’s most popular creations.
The Mai Tai
Just about any bar will make you a Mai Tai these days, but Trader Vic’s is the original. The legend goes like this.
If there’s one thing Trader Vic loved more than anything else, it was quality, aged rum. One day in 1944, Vic was inspired to create a rum drink that showed off the flavor of the liquor rather than masking it with sugar. Vic pulled down a bottle of seventeen-year-old Jamaican rum and added a squeeze of lime, a dash of rock candy syrup, a splash of orange curacao, and some French Orgeat. Then, he poured the concoction over cracked ice, and boom — the Mai Tai was born.
The story goes that Vic handed it to a friend visiting from Tahiti who said, “It’s Mai Tai Roa Ae!” That’s Tahitian for, “Out of this world, the best.”
Before long, the Mai Tai was the star of Trader Vic’s cocktail menu. It wasn’t long until Mai Tais became a feature at bars across the country, then the world.
The Mai Tai recipe has changed throughout the years, but if you ask us, Trader Vic’s version is still the best.
The Crab Rangoon
Next up is the Crab Rangoon. Did you know this staple on Chinese American menus was actually invented at Trader Vic’s?
For the uninitiated, a crab rangoon is a crisp, wonton-esque fried appetizer, filled with cream cheese and crab. It was invented in the 1950s at Trader Vic’s and represented its unique approach to cuisine, blending flavors from China and San Francisco.
Again, the popularity of the Crab Rangoon soon extended far beyond Northern California. Today, you can find Crab Rangoon on menus all over the world.
Clearly, there was some magic happening behind the bar and in the kitchen at Trader Vic’s all those years ago (and there still is, today).
Nearly Ninety Years of Trader Vic’s: A Brief History
Let’s take a closer look at the history of this iconic company. How did Trader Vic’s go from a small restaurant in Oakland to an innovative, award-winning restaurant and lifestyle brand?
From a Small Oakland Hangout To a Major Chain
The original Trader Vic’s opened in 1934, initially called Hinky Dinks. It was a small hangout on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland, California that soon became a local favorite.
In the ‘30s, owner and operator Vic “The Trader” Bergeron took his passion and love for rum on the road, traveling to Cuba to learn from the expert bartenders there and explore the subtleties of rum making and drinking.
Soon after he came back, Hinky Dinks became Trader Vic’s. The drink and food menu took on a new form, inspired by the recipes Vic picked up on his travels.
From the ‘50s to the ‘70s, Trader Vic’s opened up locations all over the country, establishing themselves as one of the first experiential restaurants, prioritizing atmosphere as much as the quality of the food. You can see that impact on so many of the restaurants we eat at today.
Today, the brand has locations open all over the world, from California to London to Tokyo.
A Tradition of Cross-Cultural Connection
Fusion is a word we hear all the time in the culinary world, but Trader Vic’s was the first institution to embed fusion recipes into its DNA. Learning about local Indigenous cultures from Cuba to Papua New Guinea, Trader Vic’s has always been invested in educating American diners on the world’s many flavors.
You can see that dedication clearly in the brand’s commitment to supporting Indigenous cultures, like its partnership with The Fraternal Order of Moai Foundation and The Easter Island Foundation. These local non-profit organizations are focused on uplifting the people of Rapa Nui, preserving traditions like the carving of the Moai.
Always Inventing, Always Experimenting
A restaurant can create an incredible experience and fabulous cocktails, but none of that matters if the food falls flat. Luckily, that’s not the case at Trader Vic’s.
Let’s just say that Vic didn’t stop innovating at the Crab Rangoon. The menu is constantly evolving, bringing together flavors and recipes from all over the world by respecting tradition and embracing invention. The result is a high-quality, truly unique dining experience.
Trader Vic himself said it best: “At no time did I do anything that wasn’t the best I knew how to do – I wanted quality. The ingredients are the main thing of good food.”
Today, Trader Vic’s Is More Than Just a Restaurant
While the cocktails and food are standouts at the Trader Vic’s restaurant, today the brand stands for so much more.
Over the last few decades, Trader Vic’s has radically overhauled its lifestyle and apparel divisions, allowing people from all over to own pieces of Trader Vic’s. This brand has brought its signature experience to homes everywhere, even if there isn’t a Trader Vic’s nearby.
Apparel and Home Goods
Trader Vic’s is known for its iconic mugs, many of which are available for purchase on its online site. They also have handcrafted teak products, as well as a line of vintage-inspired t-shirts and sweatshirts that feature its original logo.
We’re especially partial to its line for dogs, including Trader Vic’s chew toys and leashes — because dogs should be able to feel like they’re on vacay, too.
Canned Mai Tais
If it’s been too long since you last enjoyed a classic Mai Tai from Trader Vic’s, you’re in luck. The brand is now canning and selling its signature cocktail with real ingredients and no preservatives.
Pour it over some crushed ice, and you’ll feel like you’re on a beach somewhere.
The Trader Vic’s Guide To Parties
Cocktails are what made Trader Vic’s famous, so it’s no wonder that they produce a number of bartending guides. Now, you can become an expert cocktail artist with Old Vic guiding the way.
Making one of these cocktails is one of our favorite ways to experience new flavors from the comfort of our homes while learning about communities across the globe.
If You Know, You Know
Trader Vic’s in 2022 may look a little different from its original location that opened nearly ninety years ago — but this brand has innovated, reinvented itself, and come out on the other side fresher and better than ever. Something tells us this is only the beginning.