Bar hopping on Oahu in search of a tropical treasure: the best mai tai
By Susanne Fowler
Dec 09, 2019 | 6:00 AM
My quest to find the ultimate tropical cocktail has brought me here, to Roy’s Beach House at Turtle Bay Resort on the northern edge of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, to watch the highly entertaining bartender (and part-time surfer dude) Mark Miranda work his magic.
Into the metal shaker he puts a shot of small-batch, golden Koloa spiced rum (distilled and blended on the island of Kauai), a nonalcoholic elixir of pressed ginger and cane sugar, velvet falernum (a spicy, citrusy cordial), pineapple juice and ice. He gives his biceps a workout with a few seconds of shaking to achieve the ultimate icy temperature before pouring the mixture into a tall glass, topping it with a layer of Koloa dark rum and garnishing it with a wedge of fresh lime. The final touches include a pineapple “crown” of thinly sliced fruit fanning out along the rim and an environmentally friendlier paper straw.
What makes the best-selling $14 Beach House Spiced Mai Tai special, Miranda says, is that “little bit of a ginger kick, a little of that spicy zing.”
I soak it all up, along with the outdoor bar’s view of turquoise Pacific waters in a sheltered cove.
Still, from my beachfront barstool perch, I wondered how far the recipe had strayed from what many consider the original mai tai emanating from one of two California watering holes: Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood or Trader Vic’s in Oakland — beverage bragging rights that have sparked many a bar debate.
I needn’t have worried because I found plenty of classics in the heart of Honolulu, as well as more contemporary twists on the de rigueur rum-and-juice drink named decades ago, according to time-honored lore, after the Tahitian word for “good.”
One of the more inventive mai-tai-delivery systems can be found at the Bar Leather Apron, a small, low-lit cocktail bar in a surprising location, almost hidden on the mezzanine level of a downtown office tower called the Topa Financial Center. Here, the bar’s co-owners, Tom Park and Justin Park (the head bartender and no relation), offer their E Ho’o Pau Mai Tai, a recipe that earned a world’s-best accolade in 2015 at the annual Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Festival.
“Justin’s goal was to layer different flavor profiles into one harmonious, delicious cocktail that — although is a modern take — still has a classic backbone,” Tom Park explained. “Raisin, vanilla, coconut and licorice are the main flavor profiles, with Hawaiian kiawe wood smoke to give it a smoky aroma.” (Among the actual ingredients are ice cubes swirled in absinthe, two types of El Dorado rum from Guyana, a spicy orgeat almond syrup, coconut water syrup, honey, lime and a twist of orange peel.)
Here, the cocktail becomes part beverage and part performance art: If you get a seat at the bar, the drink’s preparation involves a wooden smoker in the shape of a Tiki god.
“Justin actually hand-carved each Tiki smoker,” Tom Park said.
If you sit at a table, the drink is slowly poured from a glass flask that has been filled with the charred-wood smoke, its curling tendrils scenting the air.
All this theater comes at a price: $18. And to sit at the bar sometimes requires a two-drink minimum. After that level of potency, you may want some help negotiating the stairs on your way out.
About a 15-minute stroll away is Moku Kitchen, where a $13 Monkeypod Mai Tai places the emphasis on the local with Kula organic silver and dark rums, and macadamia-nut orgeat. But the best aspect of this one is the top layer of lilikoi (passion fruit) foam.
In nearby Chinatown, Fete restaurant bills itself as having “local roots and a global outlook.” The outlook for a tasty mai tai ($14) at the bar was nothing short of sunny.
Bartender Kevon Schiessel started with rum that had been infused with Hawaiian mamaki tea leaves. He added what’s called a shrub — a concentrated syrup that typically blends fruit, sugar and vinegar — using poha berries to achieve acidity and sweetness.
If it’s a classic mai tai you’re looking for, head to the industrial warehouse setting of the old-school, Tiki-themed La Mariana Sailing Club. This popular spot boasts live music, a fake waterfall, a shoreline of moored yachts and occasionally hula-dancing patrons, along with its signature double rum, orange curacao and pineapple juice mai tai, a relative bargain at $7.50. This one features a dark rum float and an old-timey garnish of a maraschino cherry, lime and pineapple wedges and a small paper umbrella. If the atmosphere strikes you as a touch tacky, keep in mind that the club started out decades ago as a place that catered to the marina crowd, so the fish netting and colorful floats aren’t here just for the kitsch factor.
Back in Waikiki, an iconic drink at the upscale Royal Hawaiian resort comes with an equally iconic view of majestic Diamond Head and all those Waikiki Beach highrise hotels. The Royal Mai Tai ($15) with Maui rums and fresh-squeezed pineapple juice is such the classic, it also lends its name to the beachside Mai Tai Bar.
Even at this legendary spot, the bartenders can’t resist putting their own spins on the storied cocktail. Offerings include the Bali Tai with lychee puree and a black pepper syrup ($15), a White Wash with a top float of what they call coco-loco foam ($15), and, for a true splurge, the Ali’i Mai Tai, featuring aged rums, coco-loco foam and bitters ($35).
Searching for your own ultimate mai tai doesn’t have to test your tolerance for high-octane rums, fruit juices and flavored foams. You can always simplify things and do what my squad did: Hit the grocery store to buy a bottle of Master of Mixes Mai Tai Mixer and pints of made-to-measure white and dark rums to make our own. We then donned our pink flamingo-rimmed sunglasses, repaired to our hotel room’s ocean-view balcony and drank in the sights.