Now in its eighth year, the Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Festival at the Royal Kona Resort on Hawaii island has evolved into a showcase of what talented mixologists can create when given time to elevate a classic cocktail recipe.
Last year’s winning bartender, Justin Park of Bar Leather Apron in Honolulu, took home a $10,000 check after presenting his mai tai in a custom tiki-style display box that included a puff of kiawe wood smoke as it was opened.
“I took elements of Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic for my version,” Park said, in reference to the two bartenders credited with originally developing the cocktail some 75 years ago. “This contest brings a better understanding of what the mai tai can be. It’s not just pineapple juice and high-fructose corn syrup.”
The 2016 Mai Tai Festival kicks off at 11 a.m. Aug. 13 with a Battle of the BBQ, featuring a number of Hawaii island chefs competing for top honors as well as a People’s Choice award. At 2 p.m. Henry Kapono returns to the festival for a free poolside concert before the mai tai competition kicks off at 4:30 p.m. Admission to the festival is free; the Royal Kona Resort is at 75-5852 Alii Drive. Call 329-3111 or visit donsmaitaifest.com for more information.
Can’t make it to Kona next weekend? You don’t have to leave Oahu to try some of the best mai tais Hawaii has to offer. Here are my top 10 places to go for a mai tai.
1. Bar Leather Apron
745 Fort St., #127A
Owner Justin Park's version of the World's Best Mai Tai ($16) is a multi-dimensional adventure for your palate. Between the raisin-infused rum and housemade orgeat syrup, you'll spend the first half of the drink happily trying to decipher all the different tastes dancing across your tongue.
661 Auahi St.
It’s a testament to how good Bevy owner Christian Self’s recipe is when a cocktail he created six years ago is still one of the most requested by customers. The drink named World’s Best Mai Tai in 2010 is served the exact same way today, with a mix of Bacardi rum, orange curacao, falernum, lemongrass syrup and fresh lime juice topped with a candied ginger foam.
3. Mai Tai Bar
The Royal Hawaiian, 2259 Kalakaua Ave.
The best place for a history lesson to go with your cocktails is the hotel where Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron was commissioned to create a mai tai especially for its guests. The Royal Scratch Mai Tai ($12) is still served the same way it was originally conceived nearly 65 years ago, with fresh pineapple and orange juice added to the original recipe’s rum, orange curacao and orgeat. But I’m also a fan of the Vic’s 44 ($12), which adds fresh lime and mint to cut some of the sweetness from the juice and give it more tartness.
4. House Without a Key
Halekulani, 2199 Kalia Rd.
I love that the House Without a Key serves its Mai Tai ($14) over crushed ice, since the bartenders here showcase the mix of light and dark Bacardi rums and lime to the point where you’re not entirely sure there’s pineapple juice in your glass. And not only are the mai tais pretty at the Halekulani; drinking a few at House Without a Key provides some of the best oceanfront views in Waikiki.
5. Haleiwa Beach House
62-540 Kamehameha Hwy.
The Ku’ula-Kai Mai Tai ($13) made its debut at Haleiwa Beach House just a few months ago when the restaurant opened in Haleiwa. Utilizing light and dark Old Lahaina Rum as its base along with fresh pineapple and orange juice, this version of the classic cocktail substitutes dry curacao for the traditional orange curacao and gains a lot of almond flavor from the Taylor’s Velvet Falernum Orgeat used in the drink.
6. Mai Tai Bar Ala Moana
Ala Moana Center
I’ve got a soft spot for the Mai Tai Bar Ala Moana’s Icy Mai Tai ($8). Be sure to ask for a dark rum float, and if you feel like living on the edge, order a can of Red Bull to go with it. I’ll stir in the rum, take a few sips to create extra space in the glass, then refill with Red Bull, sip and repeat. The energy drink makes it a little less icy — which helps prevent brain freeze! — and provides a little extra kick from all the caffeine.
7. Monkeypod Kitchen Ko Olina
92-1048 Olani St.
It’s worth a trip to Ko Olina for a Monkeypod Mai Tai ($13), which includes a special housemade macadamia nut orgeat syrup and honey-lilikoi foam. This one looks beautiful in the glass when the bartender presents it — and tastes even better once you stir in the foam.
8. BLT Market
383 Kalaimoku St.
The Market Mai Tai ($16) utilizes guava juice to give it a little twist on the original, but it’s still got plenty of kick. Ask your bartender for a plastic cup and you can even take your drink out by the pool deck to enjoy the view looking towards Kalakaua Avenue and Waikiki Beach.
9. Tommy Bahama Waikiki
298 Beach Walk
Get to Tommy Bahama Waikiki during happy hour from 2 to 5 p.m. daily and you’ll pay just $7 instead of $12.50 for the house mai tai, made with four-year-old Flor de Cana rum and housemade sour. The bartenders here follow the classic recipe, and at happy hour prices you can afford to kick back a bit longer and enjoy the view from Tommy Bahama’s rooftop lounge.
10. Chart House Honolulu
1765 Ala Moana Blvd.
The Guy Tai, named after longtime head bartender Guy Maynard, attracts repeat customers from around the world — and rightfully so. Maynard uses housemade sweet and sour with healthy pours of Bacardi Gold and Myers rum, gives it a light shake and serves the drink over crushed ice. Be careful… this one packs a punch!
Jason Genegabus has covered the local entertainment, nightlife, music and bar scenes since 2001. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.