“Do you want to see Skipper Kent’s grave?” asked Doug Miller, Kailua-Kona’s resident urban archeologist. It was a rhetorical question. The Beachbum tore himself away from Doug’s Tiki collection, which includes Brobdingnagian rarities scavenged from the Big Island’s shuttered postwar hotels, and jumped in Doug’s jeep. Five minutes later we pulled into a garden estate high on a hill overlooking the Kona coast, where landscaper Adam Furgo led us through an Edenic jungle copse to a small clearing. There, corralled by exotic plants bearing flowers and fruit, outlined against the setting sun, lay an oblong mound of volcanic rock (pictured below).
We circled the unmarked heiau, which looked like a petrified candy bar. “Is he really in there?”
Adam shrugged. “There are no records of him being buried anywhere else. We think this was probably his favorite spot, the place he chose to spend eternity.” Added Doug, spreading out his arms: “Wouldn’t you want to be buried here?”
Skipper Kent, for those who haven’t read Beachbum Berry’s Taboo Table, was the midcentury restaurateur who opened Zombie Village across the street from Trader Vic’s in Oakland. Unlike the Trader, who wasn’t a trader, Skipper Kent really was a skipper. He’d piloted freighters around the horn before plying the Polynesian restaurant trade, from which he retired to Kona in 1972.
No doubt the the Skipper would have enjoyed the reason for our visit to the Big Island, the Royal Kona Resort’s second annual Don The Beachcomber Mai Tai Festival. He might even have tried his hand at the cocktail competition. But judging by the entries, he wouldn’t have won: Mixology has come a long way since the Skipper’s day, with foams, mists, and other 21st-century tricks — all in evidence at the competition, where 30 finalists crafted their own variations on a Mai Tai theme.
The finalists were chosen by Hawaii’s go-to cocktail consultant, Joey Gottesman, whose high standards yielded an embarrassment of riches for the Bum and his fellow judges (Bacardi reps Willie Ramos and Juan Coronado, Hawaii Beverage Guide publisher Chris Teves, and Maui musician Eric Gilliom).
We all had a tough time choosing a winner, but in the end Christian Self’s entry could not be denied. The Honolulu-based barman (pictured above at the finals) took the $10,000 first prize with his Mai Thai, a light, limey refresher crowned with a ginger-lemongrass foam and served with a side of deconstructed Trader Vic 1944 Mai Tai gelée.
Brice Ginardi, proprietor of the Okolemaluna Tiki Lounge in downtown Kona, offered another strong entry. Served “family style” in a Bosko tiki bowl, his Ohana Mai Tai calls for 1 ounce each fresh lime juice and Maui Okolehao liqueur; 3/4 ounce each grapefruit juice, Bacardi 8 rum, and Bacardi Select rum; 1/2 ounce each Grand Marnier and honey syrup; 1/4 ounce falernum, 4 drops Pernod, and a dash each Peychaud’s bitters & Angostura bitters. Put it all in a shaker with a half cup of ice cubes, shake, and strain into a Tiki bowl filled with crushed ice (repeat the process three more times to fill the bowl). Garnish with lime slices and mint. The Okolemaluna Lounge’s Mystery Girl server is optional (and pictured at top of post).
We were also taken with the Keahi, by Royal Kona bartender Jana Powles. “I was pregnant while creating the drink,” Jana told us, “so I couldn’t even taste-test it.” She tried out several versions on her husband and co-workers, finally settling on this one: 1/2 ounce each Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, orgeat syrup, and kalamansi lime juice; 1/4 ounce each Bacardi 8, Bacardi Añejo, Grand Marnier, and falernum; and 1 1/2 teaspoons mango purée plus 2 pinches li hing mui powder. Shake and strain over ice, then float 1 ounce Cruzan Black Strap rum. Garnish with a “palm tree” made of ginger root and mint leaves (pictured above right).
Christina Maffei, who manages the Wai’olu Bar in Waikiki’s Trump International Hotel, offered another keeper (pictured above left). She calls her drink the Once Upon A Mai Tai, and it goes a little something like this: 1 ounce each Bacardi 8 and fresh lime sour (equal parts lime juice and simple syrup), plus 1/2 ounce each Disaronno amaretto, Cointreau Noir, Domaine de Canton, and guava purée, all shaken and poured into a tall glass. Float 1/2 ounce Bacardi Select, then top with Christina’s hibiscus-ginger-guava foam (5 ounces each Domaine de Canton and egg white, 4 ounces guava purée, 1 1/2 ounces lime juice, and 1 ounce hibiscus syrup, shaken in a canister until foamy). Garnish with a hibiscus flower on a sugar cane stick.
After all these complicated contemporary concoctions, it was time to get stoned stone-age style, at Kona’s Kanaka Kava bar (pictured above). Hawaiians have been mellowing out on the psychoactive root of the kava plant since the first settlers arrived from Tahiti. The Kanaka Bar mixes fresh-pressed root with water and serves it in coconut cups to a clientele of old hippies, young skate rats, and European eco-tourists all looking for an organic, legal high.
We ordered a bowl straight, no chaser. Color: mud-puddle gray. Nose: a slight whiff of fruitiness, in the orange-guava spectrum. Taste: turns out the nose was a fake-out. All we got was bitterness. Not undrinkable, but by no means pleasant. Effect: The first swallow immediately numbed the tongue; gradually the numbness spread throughout the inside of the mouth, like a dental anesthetic, working its way slowly down the throat. Fifteen minutes in, we felt a slight, rather enjoyable dizziness. It was calming, but the taste discouraged further study, and we opted out of a second round.
Barkeep, another deconstructed molecular Mai Tai gelée, s’il vous plaît…