Honolulu’s Second Golden Age of Tropical Drinking

For decades, Honolulu has been a city synonymous with orchid garnishes and syrupy Mai Tais. But a craft cocktail scene is percolating just beyond Waikiki—and with it, a new era of tropical drinks.

On a recent Hawaiian Airlines flight from Honolulu bound for New York, somewhere between lift-off and the arrival of the gratis chocolate-covered macadamias, a woman exclaims, “What am I going to do without my nightly Mai Tai?” Under his breath her husband mumbles, “I think I’m still drunk off that mango sangria.” The man seated beside them, piqued by these mentions of pastel-hued booze, joins the conversation. “We drank banana daiquiris the whole time,” he says.

Nine hours separate this trio of strangers from the realities of suburban minutiae, and determined to stay in paradise a tad longer, they continue to bond over their respective Waikiki resorts.

“We stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village,” one of the men brags. “They have the best drinks.”

The Hilton Hawaiian Village has a Benihana steakhouse and a saltwater lagoon, but the kitschy-commercial compound certainly doesn’t have the honor of serving Honolulu’s finest cocktails. The tourists who flock here sip on colorful, cloying creations like the Blue Hawaii—named after the Bing Crosby flick Waikiki Wedding—but the sweet sludge that climbs up their straws is merely a devolved descendant of the recipe Hilton’s legendary barman, Harry Yee, dreamed up back in 1957, when the property was known as Kaiser’s Hawaiian Village. 

To validate their grandiose visions of an exotic island, post-World War II era guests—many of them spending their nights at swank resorts like the Halekulani and Royal Hawaiian—clamored for decidedly tropical cocktails they wouldn’t encounter on any other travels. To acquiesce his customers, Yee, a fixture at the property for 30 years, conjured a world of fantasy through Tiki-like drinks garnished with Vanda orchids—or, in the case of the Tropical Itch, a playful back scratcher instead of a swizzle stick. The allure of Hawaii as an oasis of magic and surprise only increased in 1959, when it achieved statehood and Waikiki-curious hordes piled onto Pacific-bound jets. This onslaught of tourism ultimately diminished the quality of well-wrought cocktails, as bars, in an effort to keep up with all that demand, turned to canned juices and cheap rum. No one seemed to mind. That is, until an impressive craft cocktail scene began percolating just beyond the beach.

Dave Newman, owner of the welcoming gastropub-meets-craft cocktail hangout Pint + Jigger, in the Moiliili neighborhood, knows it’s a given that today’s visitors still crave escapism. “People who come to Hawaii don’t drink blended Piña Coladas, bad Mai Tais or strawberry Daiquiris when they are back in the real world. These drinks, as overly sweet as they may be, do serve a function: they signify something out of the norm and are associated with a vision of vacation,” he explains. “I have met so many single-malt Scotch drinkers who, when they are in Honolulu, want nothing more than a Lava Flow with a paper umbrella. Do I like it? Obviously not, but I get it.”

As bartenders challenge Waikiki’s stagnant drink menus with fresh ideas and ingredients, a new golden era of drink slinging is starting to define Honolulu bar culture—one that has not been seen since the post-War years.

This knowledge doesn’t faze Newman, or a number of other passionate bartenders who are looking to telegraph tropical flavors with a more adventurous—and high-quality—palette of ingredients. At the Kaimuki haunt, Salt Bar & Kitchen, for example, Jordan Edwards makes the Blood & Smoke (Pig’s Nose Scotch, Punt e Mes, Byyrh, orange curacao), a refined riff on the Blood & Sand, while in the arty-industrial neighborhood of Kakaako, Christian Self, co-owner of Bevy, turns out drinks like the TTC (rum, pistachio, orange, lime, bitters and maraschino). And at Manifest, a brick-walled Chinatown space with an expansive brown spirits collection, is where you’ll find Justin Park, a Honolulu native, making classics and twists like a Collins with Hakushu whiskey.

“When I think of Waikiki, and the high-fructose corn syrup that comes with it, it’s hard to compare to what we are doing here and other parts of the island,” Park says. “For the most part I feel it has become a corporate playground that does what it is told—basically, what’s popular is what’s for sale.”

Beachfront resorts may still be able to win guests over nightly with their predictable, assembly-line cocktails, but these other low-key establishments pride themselves on fresh ingredients and consistency. Although these bartenders want to put classic cocktails front and center, they also don’t want their guests to forget they’re in Hawaii. In turn, what they’re fostering is a new era of tropical cocktails, as well as a notable new bar culture, however nascent.

When Newman opened Pint + Jigger two years ago, it flaunted one of the island’s first two Kold Draft machines. Soon, he was putting cocktails on tap, sous-viding Negronis and making drinks like the Smoking Gun, a local twist on the Margarita, featuring blood orange, fresh lilikoi and a glass rimmed in smoked macadamias. At the Pig and the Lady, also in Chinatown, Kyle Reutner makes drinks like the Cobra Commander, in which avocado-infused mezcal gets paired with a homemade pink grapefruit liqueur and fiery Sriracha ice cubes. He is also the co-founder of small-batch Hawaii Bitters Company, crafting indigenous-inspired varieties like lilikoi and kiawe wood and pineapple that weave their way into his recipes.

The barrage of shoddy Mai Tais in Honolulu has also inspired new renditions, including Bevy’s Thai-inspired version. Or, at boutique hotel The Modern’s Sunrise Pool Bar, if guests aren’t sipping an addictive Frozen Coconut Mojito with housemade horchata, chances are they are enjoying a deconstructed version of the drink, with French almond syrup and a head of boozy foam.

The Mai Tai, perhaps more than any other drink, is symbolic of the evolution of Honolulu’s drinking scene. It may have been created by Victor Bergeron—aka Trader Vic—in Oakland, California, but the circa-1940s rum classic has also emerged as the city’s emblematic cocktail.

In the ‘50s, when Bergeron started making Mai Tais in Honolulu for guests of Matson Steamship Lines, and later, when his rival, Don the Beachcomber, opened International Marketplace in Waikiki, imitations followed in spades. Everyone wanted to cash in on the Mai Tai’s popularity, and so recipes were poorly tweaked, replacing, say, hard-to-find orgeat with red dye-infused crème de noyaux, or swapping in triple sec for curacao. The majority of them served in Waikiki remain too watery and too sweet. Still, most tourists order them because they’re synonymous with the Honolulu of their dreams. But in the real city, bartenders give a damn what’s in their customers’ glasses.

Slowly, as these bartenders challenge Waikiki’s stagnant drink menus with fresh ideas and ingredients, a new golden era of drink slinging is starting to define Honolulu bar culture—one that has not been seen since the post-War years. “The real shift is the guest’s perception,” points out Self, who notices more open and experimental guests at his bar.

It’s easy to fall captive to the plucking strings of a ukulele and the swiveling hips of a hula girl. Waikiki will always represent Honolulu’s lush diversion from life, and each syrupy cocktail ordered maintains that consistently saccharine façade no one really wants to shatter—except those bartenders who will have a proper Mai Tai waiting for converts tired of slurping sweet booze out of a coconut.