Discerning drink enthusiasts tend to sneer at chain restaurants’ bar programs. A usual charge is these types of eateries offer drink menus that are uninspired, derivative and geared to a lowest common denominator. Signature cocktails at chains are also assumed to use less-than-ideal ingredients, creating a double-whammy of drink disappointment.
So, what happens when a chain interprets a classic?
When I realized Red Robin serves a version of the Mai Tai, I had to give it a go. The Mai Tai arguably reigns as the iconic tiki drink, with fans holding passionate opinions on how to properly make it. How would it fare when run through the corporate gauntlet?
I visited a local Red Robin to sample its "Tropical Mai Tai" along with veteran Pittsburgh bartender Wes Shonk. We each ordered one, comparing notes on flavor and presentation.
"Not bad" said Shonk. "I'm impressed by the glass" (a squat, clear goblet patterned after traditional tiki mug designs).
Flavor-wise, this drink was a steep departure from the original recipe, tasting mostly like a simple blend of rum and pineapple juice. Visually, a float of dark rum created a pleasant gradient effect, and a bright red cherry added a spot of color. Overall, it was tropical but didn’t bear much resemblance to a Mai Tai.
In the interest of fairness (and scientific accuracy), I decided to try a second one from a different location. The results were unexpected. This drink came in the same fun, tiki-style glass, but was a cheerful orange-amber color that evoked a hazy sunset. The garnish was more elaborate as well, combining a fresh orange wedge and cherry on a festive-looking pick.
This drink covered the bases on taste. Although it leaned slightly sweet, it was a fully realized cocktail, showcasing layers of flavor and complexity for which proper tiki-style drinks are known. While a purist would still scoff, this drink held true to the spirit of the Mai Tai. It diverged from the conventional recipe in some significant ways but nailed the important stuff.
I'm happy to have given it a second chance. The lesson is that even with a near-fanatical emphasis on consistency that chain restaurants embrace, something will always be left to chance. Assume nothing, explore enthusiastically, and don’t be too dogmatic about authenticity. You might run across something better than you anticipated.