Miami has the Mojito. Vegas the Vodka-Redbull. New Orleans the Hand Grenade. And Hawaii has the Mai Tai. Every tourist city has it’s cocktail abomination, ordered at every bar in sight, and usually served in a oversized plastic souvenir cup and covered in cheap toys. It is in such fantasy lands we often assume cocktail culture can only be that naive weed, struggling to stretch up to the sun through a crack in the sidewalk of commercialism and mediocrity. Would Hawaii be any different?
On my first two trips to Hawaii (2000, 2003) I was unable to uncover any cocktail culture; just a sea of horrific “Mai Tais” on the beach and cold Longboard Lagers everywhere. Nothing wrong with a beer, but surely I missed some hidden gems. I returned in 2008 and was thrilled to find Lewer’s Lounge and the promise of a little space downtown that would become Thirtynine Hotel.
When I returned this fall to help John Lermayer, Sam Treadway, and Christian Self open The Waikiki EDITION I wondered just how much had changed in two years. After all, Southern Wine and Spirits stepped up their game, bringing Chandra Lam on as their mixologist for the islands. That was the first sign that gave me hope. So how much has really changed?
Everything. Cocktail culture is blossoming in Hawaii thanks to the hard work of a small group of friends and colleagues who are carrying the torch, and I don’t mean the tiki torch. As you find these cocktail treasures, you’ll undoubtedly discover great classic and modern creations on your own. But I know what you’re thinking? What about the Mai Tais? I’ve always thought that the way a bartender (or bar) approaches their own cocktail cliché (think: Miami-Mojito, New Orleans-Hurricane, New York-Apple Martini) is far more interesting than how obscure the rest of their list is. What better way to take a peek at the burgeoning cocktail culture of Hawaii’s busiest island of Oahu, than through it’s most mismade, downright butchered signature drink: the Mai Tai.
Mai Tai #1
The source of all confusion: the 1944 Victor Bergeron recipe was sold to the Matson cruise steamship in 1953 which brought tourists from San Francisco to Hawaii and to the popular haunts like the Royal Hawaiian and the Moana Surfrider. As air travel became popular and tourism exploded, speed and profitability took over and so liberties great in stride and small in soul were taken until the Mai Tai was reduced to glass of value rum and pineapple juice. This is the Mai Tai you will see camera-happy tourists sipping as they peek up from the colorful little drink parasols that bob on top with that requisite four inch thick pineapple wedge and whatever other bright colored bar fruit is handy.
Thankfully, you can find six more Mai Tais just in Honolulu that will give you hope, that America’s 50th state has caught the fresh cocktail bug.
Mai Tai #2
Ask around and without too much trouble you’ll be pointed to the smiling face of Tim Rita, Jr. who has held down the stick at Lewer’s Lounge in the beautiful Halekulani Hotel for the past six years. Rita trained under “King of the Cocktail,” Dale DeGroff and has gotten to rub elbows with local girl Julie Reiner, Tony Abou-Ganim, Francseco Lafranconi, Simon Ford and more. Tim’s swanky little jazz lounge pours solid classics and modern concoctions. Ask for a Mai Tai here and you’ll be treated to a solid rendition of the 1944 Victor Bergeron recipe, replete with crushed ice. Shut your eyes and listen to this room. My tip? Dale’s Añejo Highball for your second tipple. Tim’s “Te Ora Ma’i Ta’i with an orchid and calamansi for your third.
Mai Tai #3
Vaguely reminiscent of your first trip to the NY Milk & Honey, finding this next Mai Tai is definitely part of the fun. Turn off a main drag down a one-lane driveway into what seems to be a large bank or office building but is in fact a high-rise condo building, find the elevators and head to the third floor and ask Kyle Reutner. It should be little surprise that Kyle has a degree in Chemistry shoved under a pile of cocktail books somewhere in his place. Come to Apartment 3 on the right day and you might score one of his edible Mai Tais: a fairly classic recipe turned into a gelée served on a lime chip. My tip? Kyle’s Honolulu Cocktail #2 from the Savoy over a game of 9-ball in the back room.
Mai Tai #4
Keep on driving out of Waikiki and point your GPS to Town restaurant and bar where soft-spoken but affable Dave Powers will whip up his version of the 1930s/40s classic made with his own house-made macadamia nut orgeat. (Go ahead and drool, I’ll wait.) As you sip, revel in the back bar and one of the few watering holes anywhere in the Islands that can make a New Yorker feel at home. My tip? Eat here.
Mai Tai #5
Across the street from Lewer’s Lounge you’ll find Nobu and their head barman, David Newman. Park it in this sleek and sexy restaurant lounge and you’ll once again be served a solid old-school version of the Mai Tai. Tip David a bit more and ask for the “OTHER Mai Tai” and you’ll be introduced to the wild world of cocktail shooters. Forget “bombs” and “on the beaches,” and prepare for concentrated liquid amusé versions of classic cocktails like the Mai Tai. My tip? Water, drink lots of water!
Mai Tai #6
Sooner or later someone is going to send you to Thirtynine Hotel and tell you to have Christian make you his $10,000 prize-winning Mai Tai made with lemongrass and ginger. The description alone will make you drool. But you’ll not find the quiet, unassuming Englishman there any more, nor his championship Mai Tai– #6 will be a goose chase. Until, you find…
Mai Tai #7
Step through the white oak bookcase of the brand new sleek “Surfer Chic” Waikiki EDITION Hotel next to the Ilikai Hotel and ask for Christian Self, the man behind Mai Tai #5. A silent spirit, Christian aperates bar to bar at EDITION– a cocktail cooler himself, keeping the staff calm and on-point. While you wait, have any bartender make you my contribution to Hawaiian cocktail culture and my answer to “what the h-ll are we going to do about the Mai Tai?!”: the house Deconstructed Mai Tai. A healthy measure of Pyrat XO Rum and orgeat syrup (house-made version is in the works I hear) topped with a sweet and bright Mai Tai foam consisting of fresh squeezed lime juice, orange curaçao, and a hit of rock candy syrup. Served over ice and garnished with a native Shiso Leaf, the Asian cousin twice-removed from the Yerba Buena. Halfway through your Decon Mai Tai, if you’re lucky Christian will appear out of thin air and on the right day, whip you up one of his prized Mai Tais. My tip? Head to the Bar at Sunrise Pool and indulge in the Frozen Coconut Mojito. You’ll never make fun of a blender again.
Mai Tai #8
If you’ve followed this course intelligently (hitting #2 then #5 for example), you’re ready for Mai Tai #8, which not surprisingly, is anything but a Mai Tai. Sit your butt back down at the Lobby Bar and wait for Sam Treadway formerly of Drink in Boston and try on just about anything he wants to whip up for you. On menu your liver will be tickled by the Agony & Ecstasy, La Geisha, or Japanese Julep. My tip: go classic, go off-menu.
Ernie, Vic– sleep peacefully– the damage done is being repaired, one pau hana at a time. Thanks to a native, an ex-pat, a handful of transplants and a haole from the seventh island who are slowly making the only umbrellas you see on the beach, not in your drink.
Tobin Ellis is the founder of Las Vegas based, BarMagic, a beverage and nightlife development agency. Ellis has 20 years of bartending, hospitality, and nightlife experience throughout the United States and much of the world. Ellis is a 3-time Mixology Champion (2009 USBG Leblon Caipirinha Competition, 2009 Tales of the Cocktail Barmade Bitters Winner and was the 2005 Blue Blazer Mixology Champion).