If rum’s history is a sordid tale of sugar and slaves, then the Mai Tai is its steamy love child, complete with a questionable blood line. Every August, Mai Tai-philes gather at the Royal Kona Resort for the annual Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Festival honoring the drink’s colorful contribution to cocktail lore by celebrating the many creative incarnations it will become during the accompanying competition.
This year 30 Mai Tai mommies and daddies from around the world competed for the honor of innovating the best Mai Tai. The competition gets bigger and better every year, with the inclusion of evermore celebrity judges, as well as more attendees. A cruise down Ali`i Drive, the main drag in Kona, revealed a colony of red and black Bacardi bats fluttering by on festive flags. This small West Hawaii town was ready to revel to the tune of a $10,000 grand prize from Bacardi for the winner who makes Mai Tai history.
The first thing on the agenda of the two-day event was a cocktail reception in the Royal Kona Resort lobby lounge. Giant rock tiki heads overlooked the action, and the jagged lava coastline seemed to meet the deep blue Pacific right on the cusp of the bar—one that features 13 distinct Mai Tai recipes. At the reception, while servers passed around trays of poke stacked cucumbers and pineapple glazed chicken sticks, Christian Self of the Edition Waikiki, 2010’s Mai Tai Champion, served hundreds of his winning Mai Tai Twist in gentlemanly fashion as celeb judge Mick Fleetwood graciously posed for photos.
“The highlight was being invited by [owner] Gary Hogan and being around such a wonderful social event at the Royal Kona Resort. I loved seeing so many people enjoying themselves,” said Fleetwood, “It was my pleasure.”
That was Day One. At 10 the next morning, we gathered for a briefing given by Joey Gottesman, the Young’s Market mixologist and event emcee. On hand were a few of the judges: Beachbum Berry, a rumologist and author of several tiki cocktail books; Juan Coronado, Bacardi Brand Master; Manny Hinojosa, Corzo Brand Ambassador; and Chris Teves, publisher of Hawaii Beverage Guide.
The atmosphere was laid back for having 10 grand on the line, but that’s how it is in Hawaii: things move along as if you’ve already downed a few Mai Tais. A couple bartenders wandered in late, while Gottesman spoke about etiquette, rules, preparation and points. Cocktails were judged on seven factors: presentation, nose, palate, finish, balance, creativity and whether they were true to form. Each factor had a possible 10 points, making seventy points a perfect score. Oh, and competitors had just seven minutes to create their drink (finishing after the buzzer sounded caused a five-point deduction).
After final details were explained and the rounds worked out, it was time to hit the Mai Tai Fest’s Battle of the Barbecue. The live music and food festival held on the resort’s luau grounds were a welcome distraction from any pre-contest jitters. Ten chefs from restaurants like Huggo’s, Roys and the Fish Hopper grilled meat for the Best Barbecue and People’s Choice awards.
The votes this year unanimously gave Waikaloa newcomer Banjy’s Paradise Bar and Grill first place for both. Chef Aaron Carter’s pork sliders with pepper jack and onion rings wowed the judges. As the bar competition set up, Mai Tai’s flowed liberally while Hawaiian music legend Henry Kapono played a poolside concert with a cameo performance by Mick Fleetwood.
The judges were chipper as the contest got going. First Chef Sam Choy joined the panel, and Mick Fleetwood had two stand-ins for the first few rounds: manager Carl Stubner and writer Anthony Bozza.
In the first round John Abreau impressed the panel with his vessels made of sugar and embellished with coconut, while Alice Hartling from Frankie’s Tiki Room showed us how Mai Tais are done in Vegas.
Maui’s 10 contenders made up the largest group of contestants; Oahu sent six bartenders and Hawaii Island eight. But not all the bartenders came from Hawaii—Adam Bursik represented the Rum Club in Bratislava, Slovakia, and swizzled his beautifully presented Tea Time Mai Tai with aged habarka and garnished it with crushed tea cookies infused with Grand Marnier.
Of the Maui competitors, Tommy Bahama Wailea’s Ka`ai Fong started by taking a shot of Bacardi Superior before making his Hawaiian Heritage Mai Tai, which he served in a hurricane glass.
“I felt a sentimental connection to Wendy Agustin from Beverly Gannon’s Haliimaile General Store,” said Fleetwood of one of the bartenders. “I liked the presentation of her Mai Tai in a pineapple.”
Fairmont Kealani’s Deliah “Dia” Asada’s Kilauea Eruption incorporated chile pepper water with Bacardi 151 while Eric Martinez from Four Season’s Wailea cleverly mixed in milk and halo halo with Bacardi Rock Coconut.
The crowd went berserk as Brice Ginardi from Okolemaluna in Kona incorporated a bit of drama, staging a Fed Ex delivery during his creation of the No Ka Oi Mai Tai.
The bartenders used a variety of strategies. Jeff Felice of the Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas went for DiSaronno and dark chocolate notes in his Mai Tai Truffle. Seattle bartender Andrew Bohrer from The Rob Roy employed almond milk as “the most slacker way to make orgeat [syrup],” he said. “Using plain almond milk was the simplest way I saw to get that flavor.”
Between rounds, Beachbum Berry brought the crowd up to speed on the scrap between Don the Beachcomber’s Mai Tai and the Trader Vic Mai Tai—the ancient and competing creation myths of the “true” Mai Tai. We’ll probably never know which is the earlier drink, but such tales only add to the Mai Tai’s mystique (Berry is one of the most knowledgeable on the topic, and has spent the last 20 years collecting vintage tiki recipes; he also wrote Remixed, A Gallery of Tiki Drinks, which covers the Mai Tai in depth).
“I do a lot of cocktail seminars around the country and in Europe now, and bartenders are suddenly all interested in the Mai Tai, whereas just a few years ago nobody took Tiki drinks seriously as the groundbreaking cocktails that they were.” says Berry.
But back to the contest. In the end, the judges crowned Trump Waikiki’s Christina Maffei champion of the Mai Tai. Her Ilikea’s Mai Tai was a masterpiece of color and flavor, mixing Bacardi 8 and select DiSaronno, Domain de Canton and roasted pineapple puree, but her denouement had to be the scoop of Bacardi gold pineapple sorbet placed on top.
“There was good use of rum and temperature at work in this cocktail,” said Coronado, “as the ice melts and dilutes this drink the sorbet comes in and adds to the chill and texture.” All in all Coronado commented that the competition was a step up from last year, and the caliber of the drinks reflected that.
“I felt I could apply what I learned in fine dining in Chicago to cocktails here in Hawaii,” said Maffei. “I love the creative side and playing around in the kitchen.”
The Peoples’ Choice Award–and $500–went to Okolemaluna’s Brice Ginardi.
While we give nod to the by-gone stories of these legacy drink recipes, we truly celebrate the next generation as innovators like Maffei carve out a new history of cocktails that we can claim as our own.