Small pot distilled liquors, fresh fruit forward juices and dark boozy floats are a mixologist’s wet dream. Add 10 grand to that and you have a throwdown of the modern Mai Tai, all of it fueled by Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum at the Royal Lahaina Resort. Eleven Maui bartenders rumbled last Wednesday for a chance at one of the 30 spots in the annual Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Festival to be held at the Royal Kona Resort in August. There the winning drink will be dubbed the World’s Best Mai Tai (which comes with a $10,000 purse).
THE GAME PLAYERS
• Christopher Nevins, Four Seasons Lobby
• Blair Anderson, Mala Ocean Tavern
• James Shoemaker, Moana Café Paia
• Aaron Cecil, David Paul’s Island Grill
• Dave Fried (Aloha Dave), Hula Grill
• Ricky Supnet, Royal Ocean Terrace
• Deliah Asada, Fairmont Kea Lani Luana
• Eric Zimmerman, Mala Ocean Tavern
• Michael Misaka , Pulehu an Italian Grill
• Joel Flack, Maui Brewing Co & Royal
• Rob Meyer, Roy’s Kaanapali
Like it or not, every bartender on the island is well-versed in the Mai Tai, a rum drink made infamous by Don Beach in the 1940s. In the Tiki drink hey days of the 50s to 60s, playful interpretations of Polynesian culture and kitsch combined over strong tropical drinks. There’s a nod to these traditions in each of the thousands of Mai Tai sips made across the state every day.
While many of us islanders scoff at the idea of ordering a Mai Tai (after all, we’re not on vacation), a few of us die-hard tiki aficionado have no such fears. After all, it’s easy to forget that a Mai Tai is simply a great drink (Emcee and master mixologist Joey Gottesman calls Mai Tais “a punch in the face”). For the contest, the drinks have three main components: Sammy’s Rum, citrus juices and a float, but the interpretation and execution are up to the bartender.
Sammy Hagar himself sat at the judging table. Fresh off of his Chicken Foot tour, Hagar was more than ready to taste some Mai Tais. Brad Hargreaves, Drummer of 3rd Eye Blind, was also on hand to judge Mai Tais. While the banter was light, the rock stars couldn’t decide who was the more seasoned expert. Gary Hogan, owner of Hawaiian Hotels and Resorts and event founder, Mark Nigbur, master distiller of Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum and little old me also sat in judgment. Judges nudged noses and tongues on masterful Mai Tai creations and maintained decorum with a pen to record results.
Cocktails are 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 70 points a perfect score. Oh, and competitors had just seven minutes to create their drink fashioned with garnishes (finishing after the buzzer sounded earned a five-point deduction).
It was a fierce fight with the warm Lahaina sunset threatening to melt drinks in a flash, but the bartenders performed spectacularly. Dave Fried from Hula Grill had a big fan base that went crazy over his bare-all production of his “Mai Tai Have Another.” Dave was a judge at this competition last year, but decided to try his hand at the prize, having made thousands of Mai Tai’s in Kaanapali. Fried scored big with the giant Mai Tai he made special for Hagar, and impressed the judges with rum-soaked fruit, but never made it to the top.
No, the top spot went to Christopher Nevins from the Four Seasons Resort. He said his “Kipahulu Lulu” may seem simple, but simple didn’t make it easy. The drink is built, rolled, strawed, floated, foamed and then garnished twice. It’s a play on the “Classic Mai Tai” served at the Four Seasons Lobby Lounge. While working at the bar one night, a guest came in requesting a cocktail that included mint and cherry juice and the “Kipahulu Lulu” was born. The cocktail features an interesting cherry foam across the top as well as a float of Coruba, garnished with cherry and mint.
“I really wanted to incorporate the classic flavors of a Mai Tai and let the full fruit flavor of Bing cherries stand out,” says Nevins. “Yes, everyone uses foams and I really am not a foam guy at all, but this foam is the icing on the cake.”
Blair Anderson of Mala Ocean Tavern, a Mai Tai competition veteran and winner of the 2010 mix off at Royal Lahaina, took second with his “Modern Mai Tai.” The cocktail, served in a Bordeaux glass, is elegant and uses some of Anderson’s own proprietary juice and spice mix. It’s served over misted ice. Appleton Rum, Coruba Coconut and Jamaican Dark all played a part in the drink.
“I felt it was time to incorporate classic Mai Tai ingredients with new school mixology,” says Anderson. “The Mai Tai can be easily overdone with sweetness and alcohol. By using moderation and natural ingredients I’ve been able to create a fun and inventive version of this classic cocktail.”
James Shoemaker, the defending 2011 champion of the Maui mix off, took third with his creative “Year of the Dragon” Mai Tai that had a beautiful color and aroma.
“I wanted to take something old and make it new but still be loyal to the Mai Tai, so I basically took an Old Fashioned with cherry, bitters & sugar and added Sammy’s rum with Okolehao for spice,” says Shoemaker. “Maui Preserved pineapple syrup for sweetness and fresh Maui Gold pineapple for the juice. Oh, and the Appleton dark rum for a float. When you bang-down cherries with fresh pineapple and bitters you get a kind of sundown effect on the coloring and the dark float sets it off.”
All three Maui winners will be staying at the Royal Kona Resort, courtesy of Hawaiian Hotels & Resorts, and will be entered into the Fourth Annual Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Mix-Off. The all-day Mai Tai Festival on the Big Island, to be held Aug. 18, features a pool party with entertainment by island favorite Henry Kapono, the signature “$10,000 World’s Best Mai Tai Mix-Off,” “Battle of the BBQ” cook-off with some of Hawaii’s best chefs and Big Island Mai Tai Marketplace. For Royal Kona Resort Mai Tai Festival event tickets, call 808-329-3111. Further information can be obtained online at hawaiihotels.com.
SAMMY HAGAR’S PINEAPPLE SNACK
Here’s an easy recipe Sammy shared with me. He swears by this pau hana chilled adult snack. In fact, he says he has some in his fridge right now!
First peel and chunk one Maui Gold Pineapple. Then pour Sammy’s Beach Bar rum over it and chill. After a stressful day at the beach, pop the container open and munch!
For more foodie news, visit MauiTime’s food blog at: mauidish.com