Matt Young first encountered the Royal Hawaiian when he was on the opening team at Cane & Table in New Orleans over a decade ago. The cocktail, which combines gin, fresh pineapple juice, lemon and orgeat, is a stunning example of the nontiki tropical canon—a genre that captivated Young early on and has long been at the heart of the program at Cane & Table, part of the CureCo group of bars, where Young served as the beverage director. “The Royal Hawaiian is tropical and lush, but it has a really beautiful restraint where a lot of tiki drinks are really baroque and opulent,” he says.
The tropical movement that came before tiki originated in hotels around the world that catered to British and American tourists. The subgenre often leaned on more traditional “Old World” spirits like gin and brandy rather than rum, and its progeny drew on traditional templates from the American cocktail canon. Like all tropical sours, the Royal Hawaiian’s ancestor is punch, which was a staple throughout tropical locales colonized by westerners. This was the backdrop for the U.S.’ imperial occupation of Hawaii, which started in the late 1800s, and the islands’ subsumption into the United States in the late 1950s.
In 1927, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel opened, and some claim that the eponymous cocktail was invented in the hotel’s earliest years, originally named for Princess Ka‘iulani. It’s likely, however, that the drink actually debuted under its current name and was introduced in the 1950s. In the early years of that decade, a team of recipe developers from Trader Vic’s launched a menu at the Royal Hawaiian’s bar, featuring a Zombie, a Planter’s Punch and a Mai Tai, among others.
Though it’s not certain that the Royal Hawaiian cocktail was a product of that takeover, the presence of a Mai Tai on the menu meant that orgeat would have been an essential ingredient at the bar. Young even views the Royal Hawaiian as a Mai Tai variation, and as a cousin of nontropical orgeat sours like the Cameron’s Kick and the Army & Navy. A self-proclaimed orgeat fanatic, he says that the Royal Hawaiian is a prime showcase for the ingredient’s ability to lend heft and texture to cocktails.
The Royal Hawaiian is traditionally served up, but Young breaks with the original and serves the drink on pebble ice, which is both a nod to the Mai Tai and a practical choice, given that he has long worked in New Orleans, where drinks served up wither quickly in the summer heat. “Taking cues from the Mai Tai, I want this thing on ice, and I want it to develop a little bit,” he says, referring to how the drink will change as the ice melts. He opts to whip-shake the drink with a small amount of pebble ice, aerating the mixture while also controlling its dilution.
Serving a cocktail like this on pebble ice warrants using a higher-proof gin to stand up to the added dilution. Young favors Bombay Dry, but any gin that clocks in between 94 and 100 proof will have a similar effect, he says. A navy-strength gin with an even higher proof, like expressions from Plymouth and Hayman’s, would work beautifully here, too, according to Young.
Young abhors the use of store-bought pineapple juice and insists on fresh juice for his Royal Hawaiian recipe. “Fresh pineapple juice is incredibly complex—not only texturally, but aromatically, acidically and enzymatically,” he says.
During the decade-plus that Young served Royal Hawaiians at Cane & Table, the formula never changed—a marked difference from other recipes at the bar that have morphed over time. According to him, the simplicity of the Royal Hawaiian offers an opportunity to make every choice count within the cocktail. “You can really showcase an editorial view of how to pick your products, how to curate them to make them all work harmoniously,” he says.