When talking about the best cocktail destinations in the U.S., the same familiar cities always rise to the top. New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and a handful of others receive the lion’s share of attention and accolades, and often for bar programs that celebrate tiki, a category with roots located firmly outside the contiguous 48 states. And too often, these mainland-focused discussions of merit exclude Honolulu, which is currently enjoying a cocktail renaissance of its own.
Honolulu’s best bars are well versed in the classics but are also working to reclaim and reinvent tiki staples. They’re paying homage to the past while representing the culture through a modern lens, and educating tourists — who visit in droves each year — one unexpected drink at a time.
Today, great bars can be found all across the city, and the industry is finally starting to notice. Honolulu’s Bar Leather Apron won Hawaii’s first national James Beard award for Outstanding Bar earlier this year, and it currently sits at No. 41 on North America’s 50 Best Bars list. Opened in 2015 by co-owners Justin Park and Tom Park (no relation), Bar Leather Apron operates on the mezzanine level of an unassuming downtown financial building. There, you’ll find a decidedly modern and local twist on the Mai Tai, a beach-bar staple with California origins that made its way to Hawaii in the early 1950s. Its fan-favorite, E Ho’o Pau Mai Tai, combines raisin-infused rum with coconut water syrup, spiced orgeat, vanilla, lime, absinthe, ohia blossom honey — the indigenous ohia flower is steeped in Hawaiian tradition and used in cultural ceremonies — and smoke from Kiawe, a native type of mesquite wood. You’ll also find tequila– and mezcal-spiked drinks and a variety of Old Fashioneds on the menu, as well as shelves stocked with hundreds of whiskeys. A relative anomaly when it opened, Bar Leather Apron and its dedication to top-notch ingredients and presentation is now indicative of the larger movement toward local sourcing and precise technique happening across Honolulu.
Such movements don’t occur, though, without enterprising bartenders who act both as innovators and educators. One of those bartenders is Bevy‘s Mike Ihara, who works to open the minds and palates of locals and visitors alike. The Kaka‘ako neighborhood space debuted in 2013, and over the years has become one of the best cocktail joints in the city. The unassuming bar is happy to pour you a beer, but the cocktail menu features thoughtful concoctions like the Muse — which combines the French gentian liqueur Suze with sherry, lemon, vanilla, bitters, and tonic — and the Upside Down, a Piña Colada riff featuring fernet, Chartreuse, lime, pineapple, coconut, and lavender. Your drink might, in fact, be served with an umbrella, but these aren’t your typical “umbrella drinks.”
Ihara says that due to its downtown location, Bevy is somewhat insulated from the overly sweet and often blended cocktails served at many of the big Waikiki destinations. Notably, Bevy doesn’t even have a blender. Ikara says the bar’s lack of kitsch earns its drinks some quizzical looks, particularly when he serves a classic 1944 Mai Tai instead of the adapted pineapple-laced version featuring grenadine, a dark rum float, and a bright red cherry on top.
“At those high-volume places, you don’t really have time to sit down and explain to someone what a ‘44 Mai Tai is, or what a proper Painkiller is,” Ihara says. “But here, people are into it.” Ikura explains that this well-balanced Mai Tai often leads to customers ordering the bar’s more signature cocktails, or soliciting a recommendation for what to drink next. It’s interactions like this that can lift the veil off what Hawaiian cocktails can be.
Expanding guests’ horizons doesn’t mean refusing to make people the drinks they want; it’s just another way to show off that famous Aloha State hospitality. At Mahina and Sun’s, which is situated inside Waikiki’s boutique Surfjack Hotel, barman Christian Taibi has carved out a niche serving tiki-style craft cocktails containing house-made innovations in people-pleasing packages. The menu is light on ingredients but quick with descriptors like “a vacation in a glass” or “think bonfire on the beach.”
“We make our menu to appeal to all types of drinkers, but we approach it as a journey rather than just listing ingredients,” says Taibi, who juices local produce to make syrups and cordials in-house. “It’s our job to get people out of their comfort zone and take them on an adventure.” He’s not put off by Piña Colada requests, but he might steer guests toward the Latin-inspired Pis’cola’da, which features pisco, fernet, coconut, and cola syrup. (Think a Brazilian Limonada meets an Argentinian Fernet and Coke.)
Though rum is never out of reach, some bars allow other spirits to take center stage. At the southern tip of Waikiki’s coastline, Jen Ackrill runs the beverage program at the Kaimana Beach Hotel and its restaurant, Hau Tree. The drinks menu plays the hits but also includes a few less expected cocktails, including a choose-your-own-adventure Martini setup, and Ackrill says the bar sells a ton of tequila.
“Given our location, we get more reservations from locals than tourists, but we still need to be thoughtful about language,” she says of the menu. “People want to be part of the fun, but they still look for familiar buzzwords like Old Fashioned and Margarita.” Ackrill, who worked in San Francisco for many years before moving to Oahu, says the best part about making cocktails today is that the pendulum has shifted away from the super-serious, suspenders-and-written-rules era of the past decade: “Cocktails are fun again.”
Important stops on the Honolulu revival bar crawl include Skull and Crown Trading Co. and the Green Lady, which pull from tiki’s deep arsenal without leaning too heavily on juice and sugar. Pint and Jigger nails the classics while also serving a handful of creative originals like a Negroni riff with thyme-infused Aperol and sherry. EP Bar is a highball-and-vinyl den that puts a fun spin on Japan’s old-school listening rooms. And for those looking to dine while they imbibe, Bar Maze (from the Bar Leather Apron team) serves a multi-course tasting menu alongside meticulously paired cocktails, while critically acclaimed restaurants Miro Kaimuki and Fete treat their beverage programs as thoughtfully as they do their dinner menus.
In spite of this revival, Honolulu’s growing cocktail scene still draws less attention than that of bar-laden New York and much of the mainland, and corporate overlords can stifle staff’s creativity at popular coastline hotels. But Taibi says it’s catching up quickly, as there’s a want — and a need — for good drinks. The passion is there from both industry folk and guests, so now, it’s about shining a light on local products and doing things the right way.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s fun,” Taibi says. “Not everyone gets what we’re doing yet, but if the alternative is some artificial blue drink, we’re going to keep doing it.”