Beyond the Mai Tai: Hawaii’s Modern Mixology Scene

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Fairmont Kea Lani )

Hawaii is, in my opinion, the best place to down a Mai Tai, but only drinking Mai Tais (and Lava Flows) in the Aloha State would be a missed opportunity. Hawaii has a burgeoning cocktail culture with award-winning bartenders and artisanal distillers creating a new, surprisingly sophisticated, wave of drinks.

The Culinary Scene Leads the Way

“If I had to give anyone credit, it would be the legendary chefs that started the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement,” Tania Harmon of Hawaii Sea Spirits says. “They paved the way for the cocktail culture by shining a light on Hawaii’s talent and local agricultural abundance found on the islands.”

Of course, it took a few key players to give the movement legs, and most people point to three bartenders: Christian Self, owner of Honolulu’s hip Bevy Bar; Chandra Lucariello, vice president of the Hawaii chapter of the U.S. Bartenders Guild; and Dave Newman, owner of Pint + Jigger.

(Image credit: Bar Leather Apron)

The Evolution of Local Tastes

Newman also credits a shift in local preferences. He started Pint + Jigger, a gastropub serving craft beer and craft cocktails, to attract locals who first and foremost came for the suds.

But, he says, people now come in for both — and their palates are more sophisticated. “People are going way, way less sweet,” Newman notes — especially women. “You see the guy on a date order a Moscow Mule and then the woman orders a Booker’s neat and the guy wants to change his order.”

Making Use of Aloha Spirits

The past decade has seen the creation of a spate of local distilleries. “The distillation scene is small and growing, notes Kyle Reutner, brand manager for Ko Hana Hawaiian Agricole Rum, a small-batch, single-varietal rum that has all the bartenders buzzing right now. “We are fortunate to have such a great climate and fertile ground; the distillers can grow their own produce for distilling. It’s an amazing opportunity we have to control our inputs and therefore impact the output (the spirit). We can truly make things from Hawaii.”

Maui, in particular, is a hotbed for craft distilling. From the award-winning Ocean Vodka to Old Lahaina Rum made with Hawaiian molasses and sugar cane and even Paniolo Whiskey, Harmon says that Maui was a first mover on the artisan booze front — although Oahu was the first to really embrace the resurgence of craft cocktails.

(Image credit: Fairmont Kea Lani )

Oahu Is the Epicenter (but Everyone’s in on It)

Seeing as it’s the only island with a true metropolis, Oahu is arguably ground zero for the cocktail scene. Sipping your way around Honolulu, you can try everything from classic tipples to top-notch tiki drinks and more modern creations. But these days there are quality cocktails on pretty much every island.

Some Oahu bars and restaurants that really celebrate quality cocktails are Manifest, Livestock Tavern, and The Pig And The Lady. On Maui, acclaimed bartender Aaron Alcala-Mosely is leading the charge at the recently opened Luana Lounge, and the talented Robert Pace presides over the mixology menu at the Ritz Carlton. If it’s bourbon-focused cocktails you’re after, though, try Cow Pig Bun.

The Aloha Spirit Above All

Even as the cocktail scene evolves, the focus remains on the customer and the Aloha spirit that Hawaii is known for. As Reutner notes, “I don’t ever want to think too much about the glass and the liquid, but rather the person.”