Whiskey Drinks Around Honolulu
Whiskey's Back: One Night on the Whiskey Trail with Hawaii’s Best Bartenders
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by John Heckathorn, Photography by Linny Morris
I am at the bar at Town with three of Honolulu’s best bartenders. Dave Newman, bar manager of Nobu, and Kyle Reutner of the cocktail catering company Imbibe Hawaii, and I have showed up to visit Dave Power, who works the bar at Town five nights a week. It’s the culmination of a quite an evening. I’ve begun to think of it as my night on the Whiskey Trail.
We began at Nobu nibbling on snacks like foie gras gyoza and salt-and-pepper squid, while Newman exercised his considerable magic on whiskey-based drinks behind the bar.
We made a quick stop at the Lewers Lounge, where the Halekulani’s most creative bartender, Tim Rita, showed us a whiskey drink or two off his new menu.
Now we are at Town, snacking on housemade charcuterie and skirt steak with tomatoes and pai ai, and Power is saying, “Whiskey can really shine in a cocktail.”
We’ve been through three dull decades during which many people’s idea of a cocktail was a “martini,” and not really a martini that James Bond would recognize but one made of vodka plus some kind of liqueur, fruit juice or sweetener. (In the case of a Cosmo, all of the above.)
But in the past few years, bartenders have become liquid culinarians, demanding better ingredients. At the same time, their cocktail customers have become more sophisticated. The result: Whiskey is coming back.
Especially that most mixable of spirits, bourbon. In what Bill Samuels Jr., the chairman of Maker’s Mark, calls “a total transformation of the bourbon industry,” the quintessential American brown spirit is staging a major comeback.
Maker’s Mark is spending $50 million to expand its distilling and storage facilities. Wild Turkey is doing the same, as American bourbon makers are trying to keep up with the demand. There are now more barrels of whiskey aging in Kentucky, 4.7 million, than there are inhabitants of the state, 4.3 million.
“We are only seeing the beginnings of this in Hawaii,” says Southern Wine & Spirits director of mixology Chandra Lam. “We’re still serving a lot of vodka-based cocktails, they are what tourists expect. If you go to New York City and San Francisco, however, you won’t see vodka, gin perhaps, but lots and lots of whiskey-based cocktails. People want spirits with more character.”
If you can use a little more character in your spirits, here are some whiskey-based inspirations to try out for yourself. Full of nuances, perfectly balanced, these are recipes from some of Hawaii’s best bartenders, starting with my night out on the Whiskey Trail.
Newman is a bartender’s bartender, the sort of pro who can ask you what you like and make you up a drink on the spot. He also comes up with special drink menus for Nobu Waikiki. Once, he was taken to Mao organic farm and handed Meyer lemons, shishito peppers and beets and told to come up with drink recipes.
“The beet cocktail was a beautiful color, but otherwise forgettable,” he says. The other two ingredients became his legendary shishito pepper lemon drop, a drink that became so popular, he’s now sick of making it.
At the moment, he’s more excited about his Whiskey Thatcher. It is a variation of a gin drink named after former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher (who, according to the British press, was not fond of gin, but did appreciate a fortifying glass of whiskey).
“I wondered if the Thatcher would work with whiskey,” says Newman. “It turned out to be better.”
Newman’s cocktail is a wondrous blend of complex flavors. It’s got a slight touch of sweetness, a bite of citrus, a deft touch of bitter and the roundness of the whiskey.
Of course, to get all that in a cocktail glass takes work.
At one point, Newman whipped out a butane lighter, to burn off a heady combination of Pernod and Wild Turkey at the bottom of our cocktail glasses.
Why? Pernod is flavored with anise. “A lot of people hate black licorice,” says Newman, “so all I want is a faint hint of burnt licorice at the back end. I really like it, it’s an interesting twist.”
Should you make this at home, remember to heat up your drink glasses with hot water first. If you flame them cold, they may crack.