A good mai tai is an exceptionally difficult thing to find … even in Hawaii. That’s why we were excited and a little skeptical about what we would find when we judged the Mai Tai Mix-Off at The Royal Lahaina in Ka’anapali.
Ten Maui bartenders competed for a chance to go to the Big Island’s Bacardi Mai Tai Festival, held every year at the Royal Kona resort.When we arrived, we recognized half of them, right off the bat, as strong bartenders whose drinks we’ve enjoyed in the past, and worried – just a little – that we might be tempted to actually drink every one of the mai tais presented.
The origin of the mai tai have been disputed, and legal battles have literally been fought about what goes in an authentic version. To avoid debate and encourage creativity, the Mix-Off’s rules required only four basic components:
1. Rum had to be the base spirit in the cocktail.
2. Juice must be used.
3. A flavoring must be used, such as orgeat.
4. There must be a float of some kind.
The bartenders clearly had fun making their drinks, although some were more successful than others. Really? Cinnamon? With rum and whiskey??? Nooooooo…….
Only three were drinks we were tempted to drink all the way to the bottom, and we noticed that they were the simplest, most well-balanced, and least-fancy of the ten. And lo, and behold, when we and our fellow judges were finished scoring, those three were the winners.
First place went to James Shoemaker of Mala Wailea , who made an elegant cocktail he calls “The Spirit of Don Beach Mai Tai.” Bacardi Gold and 8 rums, citron syrup, orgeat, fresh lime juice and fresh pineapple poured over crushed ice and garnished with mint lime … it was fresh, elegant, and desperately tasty. Sometimes – usually – the best chefs (in the kitchen or at the bar) show restraint. Less really is more.
We also loved the second place winner, the “Mai Molokini Tini” created by Joseph Getgen of Ferraro’s at the Four Seasons. Served in a martini glass, it was gorgeous layers of pale pinks and contained Bacardi Limon, Bacardi Coconut, fresh lime juice, Disaronno liquer, vanilla syrup, pineapple and orange juice. I was skeptical of the “float” made of frothed egg whites, (seemed too heavy for drink) but they blended into the fresh juices beautifully and gave the drink a heft and texture that was missing with all of that slippery fruit sugar. The brown sugar rim on the glass gave a fantastic and surprising crunch, and the half orange slice propped up to look like a setting sun was just too darn pretty.
The only woman in the competition came in third with an over-the-top mai tai – sorry, “Tai Mai” presented in a hollowed-out pineapple. The key to Wendy Agustin’s drink, which she has served for years at Haliimaile General Store, is to let the cocktail – Bacardi Limon, Bacardi Coconut, guava juice, lemon/lime sweet sour mix, and simple sugar – marinate for just a few minutes in the pineapple. The sweetness of the pineapple meat leaks into the rather tart drink, and within a few minutes the blend is perfectly balanced. Not too sweet, not too tart, and plenty strong.
UPDATE: So who won the final competition at Kona? Christina Maffei from Trump International Waikiki, with a drink called “Ilikea’s Mai Tai.” James ordered one when he visited in September, and he reports that it was very good, but he didn’t like it as much as he like Shoemaker’s mai tai. Hometown booster? He doesn’t think so.
“Her mai tai wasn’t as traditional as Shoemaker’s,” he said, “and it had a slushy/sorbet texture to it that was interesting, but not as clean as I like.”
Would he recommend it?
“Sure … if you’re in Waikiki, it was a delicious drink. And the hotel is gorgeous, of course.”