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Sweet and tart, the mai tai as art

By Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi

LAST UPDATED: 3:44 p.m. HST, Aug 10, 2011

Ninety-two-year-old Santa Barbara, Calif., resident Anna Cochran is returning to Hawaii island's Royal Kona Resort in two weeks specifically to attend the third annual Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Festival.

"She remembers when Donn Beach had his Don the Beachcomber restaurant at International Market Place in Waikiki," said Liz Bell, the hotel's director of marketing and business development and organizer of the event (see sidebar). "She attended our previous two mai tai festivals and wouldn't miss this year's for the world. The mai tai is her favorite drink, and she loves our festival!"

Gary Hogan, president of Hawaiian Hotels and Resorts, the Royal Kona Resort's parent company, started the Mai Tai Festival in 2009. His vision was to create an event that would celebrate the Aloha State's iconic drink, promote travel to Hawaii island and bring world-class entertainment to Kona.


» Date: Aug. 13

» Time: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

» Place: Royal Kona Resort, 75-5852 Alii Drive, Kailua-Kona

» Admission: Free. Scrip can be purchased for purchases at the bars and food stations.

» Phone: 270-9780

» Email:

» Website:

» Notes: The opening party on Aug. 12 will feature DJ Tiger spinning top-40 dance music from 8 to 11 p.m. The kamaaina Mai Tai Festival package includes accommodations for the night of Aug. 13 and two tickets to the Spin Doctors concert. Cost is $200, single or double occupancy. Additional nights are available at the regular kamaaina rate of $99 per night, including free parking and a daily $20 food and beverage credit.


» 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.: Coconut Grove, Battle of the BBQ and Mai Tai Marketplace offering made-in-Hawaii jewelry, clothing and crafts
» 2:30 to 4 p.m.: Poolside entertainment by Henry Kapono and his band
» 4:30 to 7 p.m.: Don the Beachcomber restaurant and Mai Tai Bar, Mai Tai Mix-Off
» 8 p.m.: Coconut Grove, Spin Doctors concert. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $55 and available online at


Competing this year for $10,000 in prize money and being named the creator of the world's best mai tai will be 30 professional bartenders representing bars, hotels and restaurants from Scotland, Slovakia, California, Nevada, New York, Washington state and Hawaii. Last year's winner, Christian Self, bar chef at the Waikiki Edition hotel, will be back to defend his title.

For the Mai Tai Mix-Off, contestants will take the stage in groups of three. They'll have seven minutes to prepare their drink and present it to the four judges: rock 'n' roll great Mick Fleetwood; acclaimed chef Sam Choy, who hails from Hawaii island; Chris Teves, owner of Hawaii Beverage Guide; and Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, whom Imbibe magazine has named one of the "25 Most Influential Cocktail Personalities of the Past Century."

During the Mix-Off, Berry also will provide commentary with emcee Joey Gottesman of Better Brands, Hawaii's largest distributor of beer, wine and distilled spirits. They'll be the play-by-play announcers, providing color about the bartenders and the ingredients and techniques used for their drinks.

"It's a great show," Bell said. "Some of the bartenders wear costumes. They tell jokes and talk story as they're creating their masterpieces. Their energy and enthusiasm are infectious; they keep the audience engaged. It's like watching the Super Bowl of mixology!"

The judges will sip and rate the drinks based on taste, mouth-feel, aroma, complexity, balance, presentation and originality (Self's winning Mai Thai featured homemade lemongrass syrup and a candied ginger foam topping).

Another popular component of the Mai Tai Festival is the Battle of the BBQ. Vying for top honors will be 10 chefs representing popular restaurants from Hawaii island's west side, including Roy's, Huggo's and the Fish Hopper. They'll be preparing dishes ranging from Korean beef sliders to root beer beef brisket.

Three other west-side chefs (they hadn't been confirmed at press time) will be judging the dishes, and festival-goers will also be able to choose their favorite by buying tasting portions for $2 in scrip. The People's Choice Award will be based on the scrip count, meaning the more people who purchase samples from a contestant's booth, the more votes he will tally.

"The festival has a fun, laid-back ambience, which is characteristic of Hawaii as a whole," Bell said. "There will be good food, locally made products and nonstop live music. The BBQ and mixology presentations will be informative as well as entertaining, and, of course, we'll keep the mai tais and other tropical cocktails flowing — everything you need to have a great party, Hawaiian style!"

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won many Society of American Travel Writers awards.



Although the mai tai has become as much a symbol of Hawaii as the hula, surfing and Diamond Head, it actually was born in California. That is certain. Beyond that, however, a bit of controversy arises.

One story anoints Donn Beach -- a noted chef, world traveler and savvy businessman -- as the creator of the world-famous cocktail. Another says the honor should be bestowed on Victor Ber-geron, founder of the Trader Vic's restaurant empire.

Rivals who respected each other's accomplishments, Beach and Bergeron bickered about the origin of the mai tai for decades, and since both have died (Bergeron in 1984, Beach in 1989), the whole truth probably never will be known.

Even so, mai tai aficionados stand by their drink and have clear ideas about what constitutes a memorable one. It starts with premium rum and fresh ingredients (that means freshly squeezed juices and no syrups); it attains a nice balance of sweet and sour (a common error is to make the drink too sweet); and it is served cold (the ice can be shaved, crushed or in cubes, as long as there is a generous amount of it).

Other than that, when it comes to making mai tais, there apparently are no boundaries, no hard-and-fast rules, allowing creative mixologists to reinvent the world's most famous cocktail again and again.

Excerpted from "The New-Wave Mai Tai," by Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi, published by Watermark Publishing


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