If you coming to the islands chances are you’re going to want a cocktail so here are some ideas for Hawaii’s tropical drinks. There are lots of them, and innumerable variations of each, depending on the hand that mixes them. Adult beverage culture and practice have evolved over many decades, with new ingredients, methods, and interpretations of standard and “tropical” cocktails becoming commonplace.
Hawaii’s tropical drinks – a sort-of history
I’m choosing to take that as a compliment and acknowledgment of my 30 years in the bar industry as a musician, bartender, promoter, and booking manager. I’ve been a working journalist for nearly 25 years, so I’m also choosing to believe that Bruce is after my keen professional acumen for “getting the story” so here goes!
While it’s true that my life experiences include an inordinate amount of time spent (working!) in drinking establishments, I’ll be quick to point out that I don’t know much more about the famous history of Hawaii’s tropical drinks than a sober-minded teetotaler stepping off the plane from, say, Topeka or Ottowa or Liverpool. I know less about what’s actually in them. So, I looked into it.
But…what’s in them?
First up, the Mai Tai. Like many stories that involve alcohol, the history of the Mai Tai is mostly apocryphal. That is to say, mostly legend and light on documented facts. Wikipedia will tell you that a man named Victor Bergeron invented the Mai Tai at Trader Vic’s in Oakland in 1944 but another guy claims to have first concocted it in 1933. Doesn’t matter, really. You can’t copyright a hand-made cocktail.
Ask five bartenders “What’s in a Mai Tai?”, and you’ll likely get five different answers. All will contain rum, light or dark or both, with simple syrup, lime juice, and a fruity liqueur like orange curacao or grenadine. I know veteran bartenders who will make an elaborate production out of a Mai Tai for customers when business is slow. But when the crowd is three-deep at the bar they’ll pour some white rum and sweet and sour mix into a highball glass with rocks, top it with a dark rum float for effect and call it a day.
The point here is that if you order a Mai Tai, you’ll get one. Bars in tourist hotspots will generally all have a “signature” Mai Tai. The only Mai Tai’s I see ordered in my Chinatown local are for confused, seasick cruise ship passengers trying to find their “land legs.”
Up next, the Blue Hawaii. Its history is fairly well documented. It was invented by Hilton Hawaiian Village Head Bartender Harry Yee in 1957. A rep from a Dutch distiller asked him to craft a cocktail that highlighted their brand of blue curacao. Its main ingredients are rum or vodka or both and blue curacao. One of Elvis Presley’s Hawaii-themed movies was named after the cerulean curiosity in 1961.
Like the Mai Tai, there are as many iterations of the colorful Blue Hawaii cocktail as there are bartenders to make them. They will all contain blue curacao. If there are any actual Blue Hawaii aficionados out there, we’d like to meet them and ask about their life choices.
We also have the Chi Chi, the Zombie, the Pina Colada, the daquiri, the Sea Breeze and many various others. They all share essentially the same characteristics. They’re sweet, colorful, often powerful, and contain rum or vodka or both. Here at the HAT Blog, we think it’s more about ordering a tropical drink like a Mai Tai than it is about what’s in it. It’s an act of embracing paradise, a tropical vacation ritual.
I live in paradise, so there’s no real reason for me to celebrate being here by ordering a tropical drink when I walk into a bar. I like my beer cold, my bourbon on the rocks, my Irish whiskey neat, my martini dirty in the proper glass. In fact, my last experience with a day of tropical drinks was more than 10 years ago in the Caribbean and it resulted in a poisonous, vicious hangover of monumental proportions. Lesson learned.
So, if we have any practical advice about Hawaii’s tropical drinks it’s this: go easy. Enjoy them in moderation and with lots of water on the side. It’s a special moment to finally arrive in Hawaii, find yourself poolside or beachside, and enjoy that tropical drink. Enjoy it responsibly. Cheers!