It has been 11 years since the inception of the contest that changed the mai tai landscape across the country. The Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Festival, founded in 2008 in Kona, is now recognized on a national level, with the largest cash prize for any U.S. cocktail contest.
Each year 21 bartenders congregate to serve their signature takes on the iconic cocktail that is almost synonymous with Hawaii. I have assisted with the contest for six years, gaining the opportunity to bond with my fellow bar(wo)men as I ensure that they have everything they need to produce their best drinks.
These bartenders create a vast array of mai tai versions that is nothing short of amazing. From homemade syrups, to hand-carved tiki figures that encapsulated a cocktail in smoke, to glasses suspended from lava rock, the time, effort and expense put into these recipes and presentations create quite the spectacle.
Founders of the competition were Gary Hogan, CEO of Hogan Hospitality Group, which includes the Royal Kona Resort, and Liz Bell, marketing director of Hawaiian Hotels & Resorts.
While many cocktail contests concentrate on technical proficiency and International Bar Association rules, that is not the case here. It was Hogan’s desire, above all else, to make this contest fun, bringing a special energy to Kona. This year’s contest, held on Aug. 17, was no exception, with a lively judging panel that included the one and only Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, an author considered an authority on the tiki cocktail culture; Aaron Sanchez of “Masterchef”; chef Sam Choy; and Juan Coronado, global ambassador for Bacardi Rum (Bacardi and the hotel sponsor the event).
The contestants this year represented bars from Kakaako to Vancouver. The competition was stiff, but ultimately only three could leave with checks in hand. This year’s winners and their recipes follow. All of them used custom liquors, syrups and liqueurs that would be difficult to replicate at home, but you could pull off reasonable facsimiles by following their basic recipes.
FIRST PLACE: CHRISTINA MAFFEI
Maffei moved from Chicago to open the Trump Hotel Collection in Waikiki. In 2015 she took on a regional food and beverage position in a Pittsburgh hotel group, but she is anxious to return to the islands permanently. She now freelances under her consulting business, Liquid Artistry. Maffei is a recurring winner, having won the competition in 2011.
MENEHUNE’S MAGICAL MAI TAI
By Christina Maffei
- 1 oz Bacardi Gran Reserva Diez rum
- 1/2 ounce Bacardi Superior rum (flavored with almond oil)
- 1/2 ounce Perfect Puree Caramelized Pineapple Concentrate
- 3/4 ounce lime juice
- 3/4 ounce Indian Spice Syrup (recipe follows)
- 1/2 ounce Bacardi Black rum (infused with vanilla bean)
>> Garnish: Thinly sliced pineapple round, gold-dusted pineapple leaves, turmeric slices, candied ginger on a pick
Combine ingredients in shaker; shake and strain in brandy snifter. Add ice.
INDIAN SPICE SYRUP
By Christina Maffei
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup sugar
- 5-inch piece ginger, peeled and cut in 1/4-inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon whole allspice berries
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 1/2 teaspoon whole coriander
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1/4 teaspoon garam masala
Combine ingredients through coriander in saucepan; bring to boil over medium-high heat. Immediately reduce heat; simmer 13 minutes. Strain.
Add turmeric powder; stir to incorporate. Strain twice through coffee filter, then stir in garam masala. Refrigerate.
SECOND PLACE: CORY STARR
Originally from northern Arizona, Starr was hired for a summer job at Four Seasons Hualalai in 2010. His creations were enjoyed for years at the Palm Grove pool bar, until he decided to expand his bartending horizons and sought out one of the most well known tiki bars in the nation, Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago. After four years there, Cory has moved to Austin, Texas, to be bar manager at the new Tiki Tatsu-Ya. Starr is a repeat winner, having taken third place last year.
MAI TAI TATSU-YA
By Cory Starr
- 1-1/2 ounces Bacardi Anejo Cuatro rum
- 1/2 ounce Banks 5 Island rum
- 1/2 ounce Bigallet China-China orange liqueur (see note)
- 3/4 ounce lime juice
- 1/2 ounce pineapple juice
- 1/2 ounce plum-shiso shrub (see below)
- 3/4 ounce orgeat (see note)
- 1/2 ounce Santa Teresa 1796 Solera rum (as a float)
>> Garnish: Shiso leaves, pineapple slice and lime slices, candied citrus peel, pickled ginger, edible flowers
Combine all ingredients except Santa Teresa rum in shaker. Add ice and shake. Strain into glass over crushed ice. Float Santa Teresa on top.
>> NOTE: Starr infuses his orange liquor with the peel of iyokan, a Japanese citrus similar to a mandarin orange. He also makes his own complex orgeat syrup using miso, blanched almonds, houji-cha green tea and a long list of spices.
>> To make plum-shiso shrub: Combine 10 plums, chopped, and 20 shiso leaves with an equal amount of sugar in a sealed bag (such as a Cryovac); let sit 2 days. Add rice vinegar equal to 2/3 the weight of the mixture. Strain.
THIRD PLACE: DANE DOSTERT
Representing The Mill House in Wailuku, Dostert grew up in Colorado and Oregon, but fell in love with Maui after his parents moved there in 2013. The Mill House is a must for dining on the Valley Isle. Located not even 10 minutes from the airport, it is in an old sugar plantation, surrounded by farmland, next to Waikapu Valley. Farm-to-table practices are followed on the plate and in the glass, and it is a representation of some of the best that Maui has to offer.
KING’S ESTATE MAI TAI
By Dane Dostert
1 ounce Bacardi Gran Reserva Diez rum
1 ounce Leblon Cachaca (a Brazilian spirit, see note)
1/2 ounce Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao
1 ounce orgeat syrup (see note)
1 ounce lime juice
>> Garnish: Grated cinnamon, citrus powder, mint bouquet and edible flower.
Combine ingredients in a shaker; shake quickly and strain into glass. Fill with crushed ice.
>> NOTE: Dostert infuses his cachaca with caramelized banana and his orgeat with coconut, macadamia nuts, allspice and sugar cane.
Nutritional information unavailable.
Chandra Lucariello is director of mixology for Southern Glazers Wine & Spirits of Hawaii. Ingredient note: The liquors and liqueurs used in these recipes are widely available from Oahu liquor stores and some supermarkets.