Hawaii's New Tropical Cocktails

by Rick Carroll

It was a pineapple. One whole ripe, lucious-looking golden Hawaiian pineapple. Complete with a three-foot long bent plastic straw that stuck out the top like a broken paddle.

I stared at the pineapple. Everyone in the CanoeHouse stared at the pineapple. Then everyone stared at me, wondering no doubt what I was going to do with it.

Nobody suspected I was doing research in mufti (aloha shirt and fresh plumeria lei) to proof-test Hawaii's newest tropical cocktails.

In the search, I had to visit every island, check out every beach bar, sample every new tropical drink. Tough job, but somebody had to do it. Who better? I've sipped cocktails everywhere from the Tonga Room of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco to The Lantaka Hotel in Zamboanga, and a lot of places in between. I know a great, thirst-quenching drink in the tropics when I sip one.

"A Mai Tai, sir?" asked the barman.

"No, thank you," I said. "I'd like to try something new, something tropical, something refreshing, something that really says 'Hawaii.'"

He smiled and went to work and that's how I came to be face-to-face with a whole pineapple.

"What's this?" I asked. "Paddlers' Passion," the barman said. "One sip and it's paradise."

I took a long, deep sip while others stared and he waited for my reaction."Make it a double," I said. Everyone laughed.

Tropical cocktails have long been a part of Hawaii's colorful landscape, like rainbows, waterfalls and palm trees. No sunset in Hawaii is complete without one.

Trouble is so many tropical cocktails are being served in Hawaii today that imbibers can't recall what makes a Missionary's Downfall different from a Tropical Itch.

It's because Hawaii, where tropical drinks were invented in the 1950s and elevated to an art form, is still stirring America's punch bowl. A whole new round of new, original cocktails is now being served in the Islands, each a signature drink for a hotel or restaurant.

Bright and tasty, the neo-tropical drinks are smooth and refreshing, and some are even non-alcoholic. As a public service, I decided to rate the best on these criteria:

Price, on the other hand, is no object. These drinks aren't cheap, but the tab may keep you from overindulging. It's Hawaii, remember, and you're on holiday, so, in the immortal words of Don Ho: "Suck 'em up."

With catchy names like Molokai Breeze, Mangolicious, No Ka Oi and Guavarita (Margarita, Hawaii-style), most of the new tropical cocktails can be found only at the hotels where they were created, so designate a driver and let's hele on.

Paddler's Passion
CanoeHouse, Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows

Few drinks command as much attention as a Paddler's Passion. Served in a whole pineapple, the cocktail is totally tropical and absolutely refreshing.

The signature drink of the CanoeHouse since it opened in 1989, the Paddler's Passion was created in an in-house competition. The setting gets an A for ambiance--beachfront, open-air, friendly and unpretentious.

The name suits the restaurant's theme of Hawaiian canoes and paddles. One of these drinks is big and strong enough to get you rowing without a paddle. It's the rum and the vodka and the passion fruit juice. ($10.50).

Lava Flow
Four Seasons Maui at Wailea

Haleakala's last active lava oozed down the slope in 1790, and ran into the sea just south of Wailea Beach Resort on Maui.

I thought about that epic event as I sat at Seaside, the new Four Seasons' fine-dining bistro overlooking Wailea Beach, sipping a flame-red tropical drink called Lava Flow. It looks like red hot lava, tastes like a strawberry ice cream float and is so agreeable I had two before the sun went down. If there's a smoother, tastier cocktail with strawberries and ice cream and rum, I have yet to find it.

One of the Four Seasons' most requested drinks, according to bartender Barbara Carson, the Lava Flow was created by a team of bartenders with the goal to create a new tropical cocktail that captured the essence of Hawaii in a glass. They did it. ($6.50)

Tai Chi
Hyatt Regency Kauai at Poipu Beach Resort

On Kauai's South Shore, Shipwreck Beach is the right place to be at sunset. The perfect cocktail for the occasion is the Tai Chi, creation of Hyatt Regency Poipu bartender Jeff "Bam Bam" Voorhies, who has a black belt in martial arts.

The rum-based Tai Chi's destined to take its place with the Mai Tai and the Chi Chi because it combines the best of both drinks.

After Tai Chi was voted "most popular" in a blind taste test by 100 members of the hotel staff, it became the signature drink at Stevenson's Library, my favorite oasis on the Poipu side of Kauai. "The Tai Chi," says bartender Fay Tokunaga, "makes you breathe deeply and move slowly, just like the martial arts."

It's the most popular tropical drink at the Hyatt, where more than 20,000 are served each year. ($6.50).

Hulopoe Punch
Manele Bay Hotel, Lanai

I am sitting by the pool at Lanai's Manele Bay Hotel overlooking a gold sand beach and a wave-rippled bay full of tropical fish and spinner dolphins. .As the big orange sun begins to sink in the ocean, everyone is ready to toast the moment with a tall cool one.

Many cocktails, I notice, are orange-yellow, almost like that crayon kids use to draw the sun. I learn from that the drink is Hulopoe Punch, a mixture of light rum and orange juice, pineapple juice and orange curacao with a splash of grenadine, served in a hurricane glass with an orchid and a slice of Lanai's famous pineapple.

You can sip a Hulopoe Punch every day at sundown but only on Lanai. ($6.95).

Royal Lahaina Resort, Maui

Remember Dreamsickles, the orange sherbet ice cream bar with creamy vanilla inside? The concept inspired a tropical drink at the Ocean Front Terrace of Royal Lahaina Resort at Kaanapali Beach. Sunset bartender Curtis Kaiwi serves Dreamsickles as fast as he can make them. "They're cool, refreshing," he says, "-and you can't get wasted."

No surprise a booze-free smoothie is one of Maui's most popular sunset cocktails. It's all part of the trend toward healthy living.

Curtis can spike your Dreamsickle if you choose, but I really liked the virgin version better, probably because it tasted like the ice cream bar of my youth. ($3.75).

Hula Girl
Hilton Hawaiian Village

Here's something to open your eyes and get those hips shaking-an exotic cocktail known as the Hula Girl.

Like Hawaii's real-life hula girls, this drink is quite cosmopolitan; some French (cognac and Grand Marnier), a little Russian (vodka) but Hawaiian at heart and full of passion (fruit juice, that is). The Hula Girl is everything a tropical cocktail should be-fancy, fun and refreshing.

Look for her at Tropix, the beachfront bar at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Life's too short to drink "lite" beer. For a good time in Waikiki, get yourself a Hula Girl. ($7.40).

So Who Made the Mai Tai?

The Mai Tai, bright as a tropical sun, smooth as summer surf, rich as old Lurline passengers, is the most famous of Hawaii's tropical drinks.

The Mai Tai is Polynesian in spirit and Tahitian in name-although who first created the classic drink remains in dispute.

The late Vic Bergeron, creator of Trader Vic's restaurants, claimed he invented the drink in 1944 in Oakland, California, and wrote about it in a 1947 bar guide. "There's been a lot of conversation over the beginning of the Mai Tai," Bergeon once said. "And I want to get the record straight. I originated the Mai Tai. Many others have claimed credit. All this aggravates my ulcer completely. Anyone who says I didn't create this drink is a dirty stinker."

Bergeron said he gave the first of his new drinks to a visiting couple from Tahiti . "She took one sip and said, 'Mai tai roa ae!' In Tahitian this means,'out of this world, the best.' Well, that was that. I named the drink 'Mai Tai.'"

The Mai Tai became popular at Trader Vic's West Coast restaurants even before he introduced it to Hawaii in 1953.

However, the late Don (Don The Beachcomber) Beach, also of tropical restaurant fame, claimed he invented the drink at his Hollywood establishment in 1932, but named it the QB Cooler after the QB Flight Squadron of World War I.

Either way, many liberties have been taken with Mai Tais served today. Often they are too strong, too sweet and, at $7 and up, too expensive. Some resemble cough syrup. Topped with a 151-proof rum float, they can taste like boat varnish. They produce terrible headaches and generally give Hawaii a bad name. They should be served with a Surgeon General's warning.

Fortunately, one of the best Mai Tais is also served in Waikiki-at the esteemed Halekulani, which takes great pride in serving classic cocktails made from original recipes.

Other excellent versions can be found on Oahu's North Shore at Jameson's By the Sea in Haleiwa; the Bay Club at Kapalua, Maui; Tahiti Nui at Hanalei, Kauai, and Kona Village Resort's outdoor Shipwreck Bar on the Big Island.

About the Author
Rick Carroll is the author of numerous Hawaii books from The Bess Press including Great Outdoor Adventures of Hawaii and the best-selling anthology, Chicken Skin: True Spooky Stories of Hawaii. He is now editing Travelers' Tales Hawaii, due in the Spring of 1999 from O'Reilly & Associates, San Francisco. A former San Francisco newspaperman, Carroll lives at Lanikai Beach, Hawaii, and still drinks dry martinis, up, with a twist.

Copyright Rick Carroll 1998. All rights reserved.

All images and text appearing on these pages are copyright 2003 by Kevin Crossman, all rights reserved, unless otherwise noted. Reproduction or retransmission of this material in any form is prohibited without expressed written permission.

The Search for the Ultimate Mai Tai is a Kevdo.com production.