Hawaii’s allure is due in part to the mai tai, a rum-based cocktail that actually traces its beginnings to California Today, there are as many versions of it as there are bars and restaurants that serve it — hundreds worldwide.
In 2009, Gary Hogan, president of Hawaiian Hotels & Resorts, came up with the idea of launching a festival spotlighting the ubiquitous drink that has become synonymous with the islands. Held at the company’s Royal Kona Resort on Hawaii island, the Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Festival is expected to draw some 2,000 people this year.
“Gary’s vision was to create a fun, exciting multifaceted event,” said Jeff Isbister, the hotel’s director of food and beverage, who has helped plan and implement the festival since its inception. “We came up with a successful concept and haven’t veered from it.”
The celebration opens with the Battle of the BBQ, during which Tavana will perform his island-inspired rock-and-blues music. Ten Hawaii island chefs — including entrants from Umeke’s, Broke da Mouth Grindz and Roy’s Waikoloa Bar & Grill — will compete for world’s best barbecue bragging rights and the people’s choice and judge’s choice awards.
“The dishes can be beef, pork, seafood, chicken, pretty much anything,” Isbister said. “Sampler plates will be available for purchase using scrip. We’ll collect and count the scrip for each entry, and that’s how we’ll determine who will get the people’s choice award. It’s reasonable to think if people really like a dish, they’ll keep going back for more of it.”
Winners will receive a five-night stay at the Royal Kona Resort’s sister property, the Royal Lahaina Resort at Maui’s Kaanapali Beach Resort, including airfare, luau admission and a round of golf for two, plus a $500 resort food and beverage credit.
After the barbecue contest, cool off at a pool party with a cocktail and a swim. For two hours, the pool will be open to all festival attendees, not just Royal Kona guests, and there will be music by multiple Na Hoku Hanohano award winner Henry Kapono and his band.
“Henry performed solo at our first festival,” Isbister said. “He brought his band the next year, and they’ve participated every year since then. When they start playing, that’s the only time I stop running around, so I can listen to a few songs.”
By late afternoon, everyone is revved up for the Mai Tai Mix-Off Competition. This year, 21 professional bartenders representing bars, hotels and restaurants from as far away as Cleveland, New Jersey, Pittsburgh and Toronto will compete for top honors and cash prizes (the first-place winner will receive $10,000; second place, $5,000; and third place, $2,500).
Three bartenders will be on stage at a time. They’ll have 10 minutes to complete their drink, which will be judged on appearance, aroma, creativity, taste and proficiency of the bartender.
“Taste is the most important factor, so contestants can pick up the most points in that category,” Isbister said. “Creativity and appearance are also key because that’s what sells drinks. Some of the bartenders make their own syrups from scratch, and it’s amazing to see the effort that goes into the presentations. One year, a bartender set up a beach scene on each judge’s serving tray with sand, sunglasses and headphones, so they could listen to Hawaiian music as they tasted his mai tai.”
On this year’s panel of judges is renowned Hawaii chef Sam Choy; Shawn Ford, a consultant with Paramount Network’s “Bar Rescue” television show, which helps struggling bars turn into profitable businesses; and author, restaurateur and master mixologist Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. A New York Times article hailed Berry as “the Indiana Jones of tiki drinks.”
“Beachbum Berry is a walking encyclopedia of tiki culture, which is what comes to mind when people dream of their idyllic tropical escape,” Isbister said. “It’s beaches; sunshine; palm trees; beautiful sunsets; a warm, blue ocean; and a colorful cocktail with a fresh flower, umbrella and chunk of pineapple on the rim of the glass. That’s the magic of the mai tai. When you think of the mai tai, you think of Hawaii.”