Ah, Kona. You think sleepy little Kailua town on the Big Island, but think again. Once a year Kona wakes up in a wash of Bacardi rum when the Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Festival kicks off. With top mixologist talent coming in from all across the state (including some Maui peeps; more on that later) and international participants and judges like William Ramos and rum expert Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the town goes all out. Kona is packed with fun bars and charming cantinas within walking distance of the Royal Kona Resort where the Mai Tai Festival is held, making it the hot spot to party every August.
For this year’s second annual crowning of the king of mai tais, the event stepped it up a notch with a $10,000 prize, a concert by Third Eye Blind, food booths and a tasting contest, entertainment by Henry Kapono and Eric Gilliom and, of course, mai tais as far as the eye could see.
The festivities began with an opening Friday evening reception, which gave way to a DJ Brad Hargraeves dance party. I knew I was in the right place when I noticed all the Brad Parker art in the lobby; they had his originals and prints for sale in the gift shop. (For those who don’t know, Parker illustrated the cover of MauiTime’s recent 3D Best of Maui issue.)
The bar, which had more than ten different mai tais available, is built over a lava jetty so there’s ocean all around you, creating a perfect Polynesian setting replete with beautiful big tikis. Hargraeves—who’s also the drummer for Third Eye Blind—rocked the spot ’til the wee hours, his drum sounds flowing over his dance mixes, while we tested the Bacardi waters and embarked on a few walking-distance pub crawl missions, including Lu Lu’s, Humpy’s and Rosa’s Cantina.
Battle of the Barbecue
If there’s one thing the Big Island can do, it’s pulehu, and mad skills were on display at Saturday’s Battle of the Barbecue tasting. Eric Gilliom performed stage-side while folks got to sample fine meats slathered in homemade barbecue sauces from the likes of Roy’s, Big Jakes, Huli Sue, Romano’s Macaroni Grill and more. In the end, Jackie Rey’s took first place.
On the sippable side was Kona coffee sampling, with lots of home-farmed, small-batch coffees to try.
And, after a night out on the town in Kona, there’s nothing like taking a dip in the ocean. The partially man made, partially natural salt water pool at the Royal Kona is fantastic. Meanwhile, other festival-goers tried beaches down the road and reported swimming with turtles.
Beachbum Berry’s Rum-ology
Beachbum Berry offered awesome insight into the history and enduring mystique of the mai tai with his seminar, “Tiki’s Big Daddy: The Life and Drinks of Don the Beachcomber.” Jazzed up with demonstrations of three-rum cocktails including the mai tai and zombie, Beachbum is a walking rum cocktail encyclopedia.
According to the Bum, Don the Beachcomber was ahead of his time by about 70 years. Today, we can understand the intricate stylings of his rum cocktails, his food-pairing vision and his tiki-art themed restaurant as a pop culture phenomenon not truly appreciated during his own time. His sophicticated palate was right on the money with strong tropical drinks made with fresh locavore ingredients served alongside Polynesian-inspired but mainly Asian-influenced cuisine. Don, creator of the International Marketplace in Waikiki, is perhaps the unrecognized predecessor of our own very popular beachside bars that mix lava flows and Polynesian decor with pupus. He passed in 1989, but lucky for us his mai tai lore lives on in Beachbum Berry’s books and recipes.
With $10,000 on the line, the mixologists pulled out all the stops. Judged on presentation, nose, palate, finish, balance, creativity and trueness to form, each mai tai could earn up to 350 points. Contestants had just seven minutes to prepare their drinks and serve them with flair. Judges sniffed, scrutinized, sipped and scored.
Some mixologists stripped, some forfeited and some served up amazing concoctions that wowed the judging panel, which consisted of: William Ramos, Bacardi brand master; Juan Coronado, Bacardi brand master apprentice; Chris Teves, Publisher of Hawaii Beverage Guide; Eric Gilliom, of the Barefoot Natives; and BeachBum Berry.
Maui had five mixologists vying for the prize: Julie Henson from Kahale’s; Blair Anderson and Ryan Burden of Mala Ocean Tavern; Amy Day of Lahaina Grill; and Jeff Felice of Pailolo at Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas.
There was some stiff competition with that kind of money on the line, and in the end it was Christian Self from Oahu’s ThirtyNineHotel who took the top score with his amazing Mai Tai Twist. Looking like a secret service agent of molecular mixology in his black tie and shades, he whipped up the judges favorite with ten-grand finesse. He made his mai tai on the rocks and topped it with foam, taking the flavor notes of lemongrass and lime and combining them with Bacardi rum and serving it with a gelée of the same flavor notes, minus the liquor, in a saimin spoon.
Brice Ginardi, owner of the coming-soon OkoleMaluna Tiki Bar in Kona, came in a close-but-no-cigar second. I was surprised to find that he used Maui’s own Haleakala Distilleries Okolehau liquor in his Mai Tai Twizzle recipe. He’ll be featuring other cocktails with Okolehau on his menu as well. “When we heard of it becoming available, we bought a bottle as soon as we could,” Ginardi said. “Immediately we noticed it has a very sweet, herbal aroma and a grassy, complex flavor. It tastes very smooth, and we first enjoyed it just as a sipping liquor. As soon as I tasted it, I knew I wanted to make it part of my mai tai recipe for this year’s contest.”
Of Self’s winning drink, Judge Juan Coronado said, “If you closed your eyes and took a sip, it was identifiable as a mai tai. When you opened your eyes to look at it, it was 3D with texture—lemongrass, lime, the foam. He created a complex cocktail with all the hard labor and delivered it with balance.”
From ono eats to beautiful scenery to excellent company, balance was what this weekend was all about. That, and some really good mai tais.
For more photos, interviews, recipes and links, and for other foodie news, visit MauiTime’s food blog, mauidish.com
Got a hot food scoop? Contact Jen Russo at 808-280-3386 or fax to 808-244-0446.