Recently the Beachbum was invited to co-judge the first annual “Battle For The World’s Best Mai Tai,” held at the Royal Kona Resort on Hawaii’s big island. As a rule, the Bum is not into competition. That’s for Type A personalities, and we are Type Zzzz. Nevertheless, we deliberated for a whole tenth of a second before we said yes.
First, we’d heard that Royal Kona owner Gary Hogan was restoring architect Pete Wimberly’s vision back to its mid-1960s glory. Second, a new Don The Beachcomber’s restaurant and bar had just opened on the premises. And third … dude, Hawaii?
The last time we were in the islands was 2002, when you couldn’t get a decent Mai Tai anywhere — only what Tikiphiles contemptuously referred to as “Front Street Mai Tais,” named after the main tourist thoroughfare in Lahaina, where ten bucks bought you a plastic cup filled with industrial fruit punch topped with a float of cheap dark rum.
Things have changed, at least at the Royal Kona. Food and beverage director Jeff Isbister not only dresses like Donn Beach (that’s Jeff pictured below), he does Donn proud with a full slate of exotic drinks at the resort’s Mai Tai Bar.
We counted six different drinks called Mai Tais on the menu. Purists may object that there’s only one drink that can truly be called a Mai Tai, but to tourists visiting Hawaii, the Mai Tai is less a drink than a symbol. It’s a liquid postcard, their vacation in a glass. If Mr. Isbister can lure more guests to well-made tropical drinks by calling those drinks Mai Tais, more mana to him. We sampled the “Pele’s Volcano Mai Tai,” which to our pleasant surprise was actually a superior Planter’s Punch, strong and balanced; the “Plantation Mai Tai” was a Rum Julep by any other name, and a good one, muddled with plenty of fresh mint.
We were also impressed by the 29 finalists at the Royal Kona competition, most of them bartenders from Maui, Oahu, Kauai, and the Big Island. They submitted creative Mai Tai variations adapting techniques from the front lines of today’s global cocktail renaissance: one entrant went molecular with an orgeat foam, while others followed the farm-to-glass trend with locavore produce like dragon fruit and kalamansi lime. Flamed orange mist, glasses rimmed with li hing mui, and house-made syrups (spiced guava; Thai basil-ginger-mint) also ruled the day.
The $10,000 grand prize also drew mainland mixologists like Max Solano of Emeril’s Delmonico in Las Vegas (who made his own coconut bitters for the contest), and nonprofessionals with home Tiki bars, such as Brice and Lisa Ginardi, a married couple who competed against each other with separate drinks — creating not only two fine Mai Tai variations, but a perfect sitcom plot premise.
Marcos Tello, of The Edison in Los Angeles, was the only mainlander to make it to the elimination round with his McCadden Place Mai Tai (pictured above, with Marcos at left). Recipe: In a mixing vessel combine 3/4 of a lime cut in eighths (6 lime eighths), 1 sugar cube, 1 3/4 ounces Bacardi 8 rum, 3/8 ounce Velvet falernum, 3/8 ounce honey syrup (3:1 honey to water ratio; heat till honey dissolves, then cool), and 1/2 ounce fresh pineapple juice. Lightly muddle all ingredients. Dry shake and dump into a large Collins glass. Fill with crushed ice, add 6 to 8 dashes of Angostura Bitters, and swizzle. Then top up with more crushed ice, to create a “snow cone effect.” Garnish with three pineapple leaves.
Although this was the Bum’s personal choice for best drink, the grand prize went to John Matsubara, executive chef of Azure restaurant on Waikiki. John was new to Tiki drink-making, but he understood that presentation is a big part of the genre. So he used a bong-like device to infuse his Mai Tai with hickory smoke, then took a crème brûlée torch to the sugared pineapple garnish.
After two days of doing nothing but sipping tropical drinks, the Bum was in need of a vacation. So he bummed a ride to the Royal Kona’s sister resort, the Royal Lahaina on Maui (pictured above).
There we found another Don The Beachcomber’s restaurant, but this one had been around since 1971. While the exterior was pristine (see below), the interior had been mothballed for years; it’s now being restored into what will eventually be the hotel’s Barefoot Bar. Happily, the restoration had reached the point where we were able to hold a seminar there for hotel guests.
Our subject, oddly enough, was the Mai Tai. Royal Lahaina executive chef Bernardo Salazar provided pupus to chase the drink samples, including a Salad With Minted Yogurt Dressing that was so good we badgered him into revealing his recipe. To make the dressing, whip together 4 ounces olive oil, 4 ounces lime juice, 2 ounces rice vinegar and 4 ounces salad oil. Place in a blender, adding 8 ounces plain yogurt, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon white pepper, 2 garlic cloves, 20 mint leaves, and 2 peeled, seeded and diced cucumbers. Blend until smooth, chill, then toss in a salad consisting of 1 cup Kula lettuce, 1 cup fresh baby spinach, 2 ounces dried cranberries, 2 ounces macadamia nuts (chopped and roasted), 2 ounces cucumber (peeled, seeded and diced), and 1/2 ounce crumbled Puna goat cheese.
No sooner had we jotted this down than we encountered Rick Supnet, a finalist at the Royal Kona contest who also happens to be a Royal Lahaina bartender. The Bum can only do so much badgering in one day, but he managed to extract the recipe for Rick’s tasty contest entry. Here’s his Royal Passion: In your cocktail shaker, squeeze and then muddle half a lime with a slice of fresh ginger and several mint leaves. Add 1 ounce Bacardi Silver, 1/4 ounce Grand Marnier, and 1/2 ounce each passion fruit purée, orgeat, and amaretto. Shake with ice, then strain into a tulip glass filled with fresh ice. Garnish with fresh pineapple, a sugar cane stick, and a cocktail cherry.
For more Mai Tai competition recipes, check out our article in the next issue of Tiki Magazine, due out November 10: