The annual search for the world’s greatest Mai Tai has concluded, with the sixth annual Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Festival crowning Michael Soo from Bar Crudo in Arizona. Soo, who competed with 20 other bartenders from the U.S. at the Royal Kona Resort this weekend, won $10,000.
“I felt confident in my ability to create a great cocktail,” says Soo. “I have a lot of great mentors, including Jason Asher, Clint ‘Spotty’ Spotleson, Kim Haasarud, Layla Linn, Richie Moe, my girlfriend Mari Howe, and even my boss and co-competitor Micah Olsen. I believed that I would do very well at the competition.”
This is the second year the competition has used Sammy Hagar’s Beach Bar Rum as the featured spirit. Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum is made in Hali’imaile, and master distiller Mark Nigbur was one of the competition’s five judges. The others were Christian Self, winner of the 2010 Mai Tai Festival; Chris Teves, publisher of the Hawaii Beverage Guide; TJ Gorrance; and Ippy Iona, chef and competitor on The Next Food Network Star. The competitors were scored on appearance (8), aroma (4), creativity (7), taste (15), proficiency (4), theme and flavor of rum (4) for a total of 42 points. There was also an overall category worth 4 points for tiebreaking.
Maui bartenders did very well for themselves. Defending champ Wendy Romlein of Hali’imaile General Store competed again this year, placing second. Romlein brought back her Tai Mai and won $5,000 in second place. Matt Corbin of Montage Kapalua’s Cane and Canoe Restaurant came in third, winning $2,500. This is the first time the competition had a second and third place with prize winnings.
“It was exciting to see over 2,000 spectators ‘yeahing’ you on, under the watchful eye of the judging panel,” says Romlein about the festival. “One of the highlights of the Mai Tai Fest is always having emcee Joey Gottesman working with us and for us. Working with so much talent, talking story and sharing our different ingredients and skills, from outside of Hawaii. The professionalism from everyone involved, very well organized, and a pleasure to work closely with all that made this event happen!”
Soo said he did have some challenges preparing his cocktail.
“At home, I use ‘vintage’ ice. Similar ice would be cubed ice or Kold Draft ice. In Kona, the ice was just little tiny, hollow cubes, so I had to make sure that I didn’t over-shake the drink and over-dilute the drink,” he says. “Did I think I was going to win? Hmm… I had a lot of highs and lows leading up to the competition. The week of the competition, we were asked to prepare six drinks instead of the five drinks, and this certainly made it tough to make sure I had the supplies I needed. The trays I used, in fact, were from the local farmer’s market, and were purchased the day of the competition. The plumerias, and red and green Ti leaves were all sourced from the Royal Kona grounds after asking for permission from the groundskeeper.”
Soo learned about the Mai Tai festival at his local United States Bartenders Guild Phoenix chapter. They held a local Mai Tai competition, in which 19 Arizona bartenders competed outside in 105-degree heat. The prize was a trip to Kona to for the top two, and Soo won (his boss Micah Olsen from Bar Crudo was the other winner).
Soo says he will invest his winnings in his barware idea.
“I’m starting up a barware company called Clink & Clank, and I plan on using the money from the competition to increase inventory,” says Soo. “I want to bring 100 percent USA-made products to bartenders across the country at reasonable prices so they can start creating cocktails with quality equipment. Bar tools by bartenders for bartenders. I think everyone should be able to make amazing cocktails, and afford quality bar tools to facilitate those drinks.”
Soo says one of the highlights for the competition was his dad got to travel to Kona at the last minute to see him compete. He says he’s traveled to Maui because his girlfriend Mari Howe is from here. He even admits to drinking a Mai Tai or two on Maui soil.
“I’ve been to Hawaii twice before,” says Soo. “My girlfriend’s parents live on Maui, and so we’ve been out a couple of times to visit them. Those two trips certainly helped with inspiration for the cocktail. My favorite Mai Tai is from Monkeypod Kitchen, and I can’t wait to try the new bar at Andaz. I believe that’s where Fernando Sousa (one of my co-competitors) works. There is a guy Scott (I think he goes by BeachBumz) in Kihei that makes tikis, and I made sure to stop by his place. His tikis are amazing works of art. One of the places I HAVE to go to is the Paia Fish Market for the Ono Burger. Oh man. That thing is SO good. Other than that, We went out to Ka’anapali, and hung out on the beach in front of Hula Grill listening to music.”
Winning Recipe: “A Hui Hou”
At home, I used “vintage” ice. Similar ice would be cubed ice or Kold Draft ice.
To make the foam used on top:
-2.0 oz Perfect Puree Passion Fruit Puree
-4.0 oz Simple Syrup (1:1 Maui Turbinado Raw Cane Sugar:Water)
-2.0 oz Water
-1/4 bar spoon Xanthan Gum (powdered)
Combine everything in an Isi Gourmet Whip and shake and charge with a cream charger.