mai tai cocktails with cherry and pineapple garnish

After weathering the 12-or-so-hour flight required to reach Honolulu from Boston, I found myself in need of a stiff drink. And not just any drink, but something that would complement the undulating trade winds, bathwater-warm tides, and gently swaying palm trees. In other words, a Mai Tai.

Of course, the Mai Tai’s origins have nothing to do with Hawaii. The Rum cocktail was invented in Oakland, California, in 1944 by Tiki pioneer Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron at his eponymous restaurant (the name of the drink is derived from a Tahitian word meaning “good”).

But it was imported to Hawaii’s beach bars with the rest of Tiki drink culture, whose popularity rose with Hawaii’s admission as the country’s 50th state in 1959. The Mai Tai also featured prominently in the 1961 Elvis vehicle Blue Hawaii, which helped cement the link between the cocktail and the overseas state in popular imagination.

What follows below is by no means scientific, or exhaustive. It’s simply a recounting of every Mai Tai I drank during a six-night stay on the island of Oahu. That being said: I had some damn good Mai Tais.

Merriman’s

 Image: James and Jess Photography.

My first Mai Tai was ordered at the Honolulu location of Merriman’s, an upscale restaurant focused on Hawaiian cuisine that has several spots spread across the island chain. The Merriman’s Mai Tai is something of a signature and is also available on their happy hour menu for a discounted price. (I must compliment the restaurant for serving the drink—which I ordered at 4pm, the moment happy hour concludes—at the discounted price.)

In keeping with the restaurant’s focus on local ingredients, their Mai Tai is made with light and dark rums produced by Maui’s Old Lahaina Rum distillery. It also features a housemade macadamia orgeat, and perhaps most characteristically, a sort of whipped topping made with honey and the native Hawaiian fruit lilikoi.

It’s a beautiful drink. But as much as I enjoyed its presentation (and eating the foam topping), it was too sweet and too sour, with the punch and complexities of the rum and orgeat buried under citrus and sugar. It was by no means the worst Mai Tai I’d ever had—and the Mai Tai, lest we forget, can often be made poorly—but it still left me disappointed.

Bevy

Image: Bevy

Bevy, which has no relation to this website, is found in downtown Honolulu and serves a more general craft-cocktail menu in its vaguely industrial space. Their iteration is dubbed the Mai Thai, and made with Bacardi Reserva Ocho, lemongrass, and a spicy ginger foam that gives it an appearance not unlike Merriman’s.

But unlike Merriman’s, it did not fall into the overly sweet/sour route; instead, it packed a satisfying burst of spice by way of both the lemongrass component and the ginger foam. While those punchy Thai flavors helped the drink live up to its name they didn’t cancel out the richness of the rum, making for a worthy spin on the original.

Skull & Crown Trading Co.

‘Awa ‘Awa Mai Tai. Image: Eric Twardzik.

Skull & Crown is tucked away in Honolulu’s historic Chinatown and embodies an aesthetic I’d describe as “dark Tiki.” Sure, the tiny bar has plenty of Tiki grass and Polynesian idols, but also a number of skulls, preserved heads in jars, and a washed out, sepia-toned color scheme that syncs with its soundtrack of slightly distorted tropical oldies.

Libation-wise, the menu features two Mai Tais. The Maunakea Mai Tai is a straightforward take on Trader Vic’s original that’s made with dry Curaçao and a rum blend of Appleton Estate 12, Clement Select Barrel and Smith & Cross. The ‘Awa ‘Awa Mai Tai is a drier take on the classic that’s composed of locally distilled agricole-style rum from Kō Hana Distillers, Campari, Grand Marnier, and lilikoi (both, of course, feature lime and orgeat).

The Maunakea proved a bold, rich, rum-lover’s Mai Tai, while the ‘Awa ‘Awa—whose name means “dry” in Hawaiian—lived up to its name as a slightly bitter and spiced subversion of the acidic rum drink. 

Bar Leather Apron

Image: Eric Twardzik

Located on the second floor of a non-descript financial services building in downtown Hawaii, Bar Leather Apron reminded me of the small, elegant cocktail lounges I’d find on the fourth or sixth floors of otherwise-empty office buildings in Tokyo. The similarity is not a coincidence, and the bar displays an enviable collection of Japanese whisky behind a glass case.


It also serves what it calls the E Hoo Pau Mai Tai, whose name comes from a Hawaiian phrase meaning “winding down.” It’s an appropriate prefix for the drink, which is made with fig-infused Eldorado 8 Year, El Dorado 12 Year, coconut water, spiced orgeat, vanilla and lime. As with many of Bar Leather Apron’s other menu options, the drink arrives in a decanter filled with native kiawe wood smoke and is poured tableside.

The result is a boozy, smoky, figgy Mai Tai with a velvety texture that’s more in keeping with the bar’s wood-and-leather environs than a sunny beach. You won’t, however, think you’ve ordered a smoked rum Manhattan. It still possesses a bright, orangey flavor, only one that feels a little richer and more candied rather than sour or acidic. Although it proved my favorite Mai Tai of the trip, you’ll want to take its name to heart—this is a Mai Tai to end your night, not begin it.


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