The world changed for the better nearly 60 years ago when Harry Yee created the Blue Hawaii cocktail.
Yee, 98, was the head bartender at the Hilton Hawaiian Village when it was still owned by Henry J. Kaiser and was responsible for coming up with most, if not all, of the tropical drinks served in funky cups that you see on the hotel’s bar menus from the 1950’s and 1960’s. His drinks have put smiles on millions upon millions of visitors to Waikiki, and his legacy lives on via bartenders working in establishments both in Hawaii and around the world.
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Harry Yee with his creation, the Blue Hawaii cocktail, at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in March.
As the decades have passed, however, Yee has seen his famous drink bastardized by ego-driven bartenders who substitute ingredients — or even worse, add and/or remove them altogether — and corporate bean-counters who ensure customers won’t enjoy their drinks by requiring them to be made with cheap, low-quality ingredients.
“Other places, they copy and change it,” Yee acknowledged in March during an interview for my “Barfly” column in this week’s edition of TGIF. “They copy, but it’s not the real recipe. … Today, people talk about dark and light rum not realizing that rum from Puerto Rico and rum from Jamaica, the taste is, you know, opposite.”
Yee’s original Blue Hawaii recipe calls for 3/4 ounce of vodka, 3/4 ounce light Puerto Rican rum, 1/2 ounce Bols blue curacao, an ounce of sweet and sour and three ounces of fresh pineapple juice. The ingredients are poured over ice and stirred in a clear hurricane glass — and as legend has it, Yee would hold up each drink he made to make sure the color looked just like the Pacific Ocean just outside the hotel.
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Harry Yee, fifth from right, was on hand for the unveiling of the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort in March. A photo of him holding a Blue Hawaii is part of the exhibit.
Sadly, the Hilton Hawaiian Village itself doesn’t currently make its Blue Hawaii according to Yee’s 1957 specifications. A recent visit to the bar at Tropics in the hotel uncovered a bit of a bait-and-switch, with the bar’s version missing the rum you’d expect to find in the drink. But if you’re familiar with the recipe, you’d notice one that’s almost accurate listed under a drink called the Blue Ocean, although it uses Jamaican rum instead of the Puerto Rican rum Yee’s recipe calls for.
My suggestion? Head further into Waikiki and check out Bills Sydney at the corner of Kalakaua and Beach Walk. They serve up a tasty Blue Hawaii made with Flor de Cana rum from Nicaragua and Tito’s vodka for just $6 from 3 to 6 p.m. While they tweak the recipe further by substituting pure lemon juice for sweet and sour mix, Bills makes up for it nicely by including a paper umbrella in the drink, which Yee said was originally his idea back in the day (he said adding an orchid to a cocktail as garnish was his idea, too).
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The Blue Hawaii from Bills Waikiki is just $6 during happy hour.
And unlike a lot of modern cocktails that require a ton of ingredients you either don’t have easy access to, or can’t justify purchasing an entire bottle of just to make a couple of drinks, the Blue Hawaii uses the same liquor as many other popular recipes, so you probably have most of them stocked in your bar already. The only sacrifice you’ll have to make is buying a full bottle of Bols blue curacao, but its bitter orange flavor is actually well-suited for mixing cocktails once you get over the bright blue color of the liqueur. And no matter what, Yee said, be sure to buy Bols for best results.
IF YOU'RE mixing drinks at home, the Blue Hawaii is insanely easy to create. Start with a hurricane glass — an oversized pint glass or tall pilsner beer glass can also work in a pinch — and fill with ice. Add pineapple juice and sweet and sour, then finish by pouring in the liquor and stirring to bring all the ingredients together.
This technique of building the drink in a serving glass was designed for speed in the high-volume bars Yee was accustomed to working in. But it’s also practical in the way the drink continues to evolve as a customer stirs it and allows the ice to melt and alter its flavor profile. The ratio of liquor to mixers in this drink, when made properly, lets the sweetness of the pineapple juice take center stage and masks any of the alcohol burn one might expect.
But like Yee said, these days a lot of bartenders change recipes without giving too much thought as to what the drink’s original creator had envisioned. It’s second nature now for cocktails to be created in shakers filled with ice, then strained into another glass that may or may not have fresh ice inside of it.
Using this method to make a Blue Hawaii, while creating a visually pleasing foam at the top of the glass, brings the alcohol to the forefront and all but eliminates the sweetness from the pineapple juice. Those who need to feel the bite of alcohol to know their drink is working may prefer a shaken Blue Hawaii, but the flavors are much more well-balanced when stirred instead.
Even more confusing is the bartender who makes a Blue Hawaii using a blender. A different cocktail that Yee didn’t invent is known as the Blue Hawaiian and calls for many of the same ingredients as a Blue Hawaii, but with some sort of cream or coconut liqueur thrown in as well.
The reason for the extra ingredients? Adding more ice to a drink without increasing the amount of alcohol obviously dilutes it, and the only way to overcome the problem is to add more liquor and/or milk fat to improve the mouthfeel.
PHOTOS BY JASON GENEGABUS / JASON@STARADVERTISER.COM
On the left, a Blue Hawaii that's stirred, not shaken. On the right is a blended Blue Hawaii.
I RECENTLY spent an afternoon with local mixology expert Joey Gottesman tasting different ways of preparing the drink, and the only other suggestion I can make, other than insisting your bartender stir it and not shake or blend it, is to supercharge your Blue Hawaii with the most premium liquor you can afford.
Gottesman pulled out a bottle of Rhum Clement, a mighty tasty agricole rum, and some Russian Standard vodka to go with fresh-squeezed pineapple juice and housemade sweet and sour mix when I asked for his interpretation of a top shelf Blue Hawaii. After adding a twist of lime for an additional hit of citrus, this version might have looked a little more green than blue in the glass, but using Rhum Clement elevated it from something kitschy to drink by the pool into a cocktail I wouldn’t be ashamed to order with friends while out for a meal.
People who talk trash about the Blue Hawaii have probably always had them made with cheap well liquor, canned pineapple juice and a bunch of high fructose corn syrup mixed with artificial flavors. But if you combine Yee’s classic recipe with today’s focus on fresh ingredients and a bar that produces its own mixers, the cocktail blossoms into a beautiful alcoholic postcard from paradise.
Jason Genegabus has covered the local entertainment, nightlife, music and bar scenes since 2001. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.