San Francisco native Victor Bergeron brought the mai tai to Hawaii in 1953 when he was hired by Matson Navigation Co. to create a cocktail for its Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki.
Bergeron took his mai tai recipe — a boozy concoction of rum, Curaçao, orgeat and lime — that he created in 1944 at his Trader Vic’s restaurant in Oakland and added pineapple juice. Demand for this sugary version surpassed the original’s, establishing it as the quintessential mai tai.
The Royal Hawaiian’s Mai Tai Bar last year sold 94,225 of the cocktail, which is made according to Bergeron’s original recipe. It’s one of the few spots in Waikiki that makes a good-quality mai tai, but I wanted to search some of Honolulu’s less-visited neighborhoods to see if I could find other variations of the classic worth sipping.
I discovered talented bartenders putting innovative spins on the drink, using good-quality ingredients, locally sourced when possible, and producing swoon-worthy flavors.
A mai tai with fizz
Owner and Los Angeles native Dave Newman opened Pint + Jigger seven years ago, and about a year and a half ago opened Harry’s Hardware Emporium with a focus on cocktails and conversation. The hidden room has an ornate roaring ’20s-themed interior with tufted leather couches, a chandelier, a shiny tiled ceiling and a bar that sits eight.
Newman’s mai-tai ($14), made with Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curaçao, lime juice, Cointreau, house-made orgeat and El Dorado rum, is mixed in a bottle, then carbonated. Once the process is complete, the air pressure is released and the cocktail turns a foamy white.
“We carbonate the individual cocktails,” he said …. I’m not saying that carbonating this drink makes it better. It’s just fun.”
He poured the mai tai, now the color of gold, into an iced glass and topped it off with a float of two rums, Cruzan Black Strap and Barbancourt. When I took my first sip, the fizzy bubbles made the mai tai easy to drink.
Info: Harry’s Hardware Emporium, 936 S. King St., Honolulu; (808) 379-3887, Harry’s Hardware Emporium
E Hoo Pau Mai Tai
Oahu-born and -raised Justin Park creates cocktails like a chef preparing meals at a five-star restaurant — with a lot of time and pre-planning. It can take days for a single ingredient to be ready.
He opened Bar Leather Apron in 2016, an intimate cocktail lounge with a seven-seat bar in Honolulu’s downtown business district. Its E Hoo Pau Mai Tai (e hoo pau means to finish or wind down) won Park 2015 title of world’s best mai tai at Don the Beachcomber’s Mai Tai Festival in Kona on Hawaii Island.
It features raisin-infused El Dorado five-year rum, El Dorado 12-year rum, coconut water syrup, spiked orgeat, ohia blossom honey, lime, absinthe and kiawe wood smoke.
“The four flavors I featured when I built the recipe were raisin, vanilla, coconut and licorice,” he said. The absinthe is spritzed over the ice to create a licorice aroma.
A hollow tiki-shaped box is placed over the cocktail, then filled with smoke, which adds the aroma of kiawe wood. Park let wisps of smoke escape from the tiki’s carved nostrils before removing the box and presenting the drink, ready for my full attention.
Info: Bar Leather Apron, 745 Fort Street Mall, Honolulu; (808) 524-0808, Bar Leather Apron. $18 for an E Hoo Pau Mai Tai. Two-drink minimum per person. Reservations recommended.
Christian Self owns Bevy, a 5-year-old bar in Kakaako, once a working-class district and now Honolulu’s hottest neighborhood. The master mixologist, originally from Liverpool, England, pays meticulous attention to detail when creating craft cocktails.
He’s also a big fan of tiki drinks and is known for making more than a few varieties of mai tais. “I really dug into the history years and years ago, so I've always been tweaking and making them because I despise the Waikiki mai tai. It’s just rum punch, and it’s pulling the wool over everybody’s eyes,” Self said.
Self won the world’s best mai tai in 2010 at the Don the Beachcomber festival with his Mai Thai ($14) made with lemongrass syrup and candied-ginger foam. It remains on Bevy’s menu, but a new mai tai, the Ma Italiano (pronounced Maitaliano to keep the “mai” sound) will soon be added.
“This one is a limited-edition Bacardi aged rum,” he said, explaining its ingredients. “I had to take an Italian amaro and infuse it with Valencia dried orange peels to make my own Curaçao. Then I cut it down to the right proof and made a pistachio orgeat [syrup] and added fresh lime and a little bit of simple syrup. It gets topped off with [flower water] that I distill from fresh island pikake.”
Like the other bartenders, Park tries to stay true to the spirit of the original mai tai recipe. “For me, it’s a way to pay homage to my favorite drink.”