Whiskey Drinks Around Honolulu
Whiskey's Back: One Night on the Whiskey Trail with Hawaii’s Best Bartenders
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.
- In the bottom of a mixing glass, muddle a slice of lemon peel, two or three mint leaves, 1/2 ounce Campari and 1 teaspoon of confectioner’s sugar.
- Add 1-3/4 ounces bourbon, and a splash of hibiscus-infused simple syrup and fresh juice from half a lime.
- Shake with ice.
- Put a splash of Pernod and a splash of Wild Turkey bourbon in the bottom of another (preheated) lowball glass, light it on fire until the Pernod and whiskey burn off. Add fresh ice; strain the drink into the prepared glass and stir.
Kyle Reutner and Maria Burke
Reutner and Burke own Imbibe Hawaii, the company named best cocktail caterer in HONOLULU Magazine. The two also tend bar some nights around town. Burke is a manager at Crazy Box and tends bar at Nobu. Reutner makes drinks at Apartment 3 and Town.
The Cocchi Cop is Reutner’s recipe, but it was Burke, working that night at Nobu, who made it for us. Both get credit here for this light, refreshing, and far from dull drink. It’s a great introduction to whiskey for drinkers of clear spirits.
The key ingredient, besides bourbon, is Cocchi Americano. Cocchi is a little known Italian aperitif, a white wine infused with herbs and a touch of quinine.
The more famous French aperitif, Lillet, was reformulated in the 1980s. Part of Cocchi’s growing allure is that it tastes like the original Lillet, the one James Bond used in his classic Vesper martini. Cocchi Americano is available in Hawaii bars, but no retailer carries it, not yet, anyway.
- Build in a tall glass over ice: 1-1/4 ounces Maker’s Mark bourbon, 3/4 ounce. Cocchi Americano, 1/2 ounce Lemon juice.
- Top the drink with Fever Tree Ginger Beer, stir. Don’t garnish, the drink stands on its own.
Lewers Lounge, Halekulani
Thyme to Roll
From Nobu, it’s just a hop across the street to where Tim Rita is just opening up Lewers Lounge.
It’s interesting to sit down at a bar with other bartenders. They immediately survey the bottles on the back bar. It’s partly envy (look at Lewers Lounge’s array of cognacs, including Louis XV) and partly one-upmanship (you don’t have a bottle of Cocchi Americano?).
Rita is constantly coming up with new drink menus, keyed to events. For instance, for Oscar season, he created Mickey’s Ward (Jameson’s Irish Whiskey, Orange Curacao and maraschino liqueur, touches of lemon, mint and Peychaud’s Bitters), a drink that Newman and Reutner think is excellent.
Rita’s latest menu honors the Tinman Triathlon, and he’s come up with one of the most approachable whiskey cocktails ever, called Thyme to Roll.
“It’s for the bike leg of the Triathlon,” he says, “but it’s really about combining thyme with fresh blueberries. I find I sell more whiskey if the drinks are friendlier.”
Asked for the recipe, he wants to write it down. “I want to get it right.”
“He doesn’t want me to hear,” insists Newman. “He knows I’m going to steal the recipe. I’m going to anyway, Tim.”
Thyme to Roll
- In a shaker combine 1-1/2 ounces Maker’s Mark, 1/2 ounce Orange Curacao, 1/2 ounce lemon juice and 1 ounce blueberry and thyme syrup (which Rita cooks up himself, from scratch).
- Pour over ice and garnish with five or six berries and a sprig of thyme.
“Dave Power can do wonders with whiskey,” says Dave Newman. Which is why we end the evening at the bar at Town. Power tries to strike a perfect balance between classic drinks and the modern palate.
The drink he made us was, as he puts it, “not quite a Manhattan, because it’s got an Italian twist.” Power calls it a Nolita, for the Italian neighborhood of Manhattan where Martin Scorsese grew up.
In bartender lingo, a “perfect” Manhattan uses both sweet and dry vermouth. Power uses premium dry vermouth from France, Dolin Blanc.
However—here’s the Italian twist—instead of sweet vermouth, he adds Amaro Averno.
An amaro is a cousin of vermouth, an Italian digestif. It’s alcohol infused with sometimes dozens of different herbs, spices, barks, roots, flowers, citrus peels.
Amaros were originally thought to be medicinal, with a touch of sweetness to make their extreme bitterness palatable. Amaros can be drunk straight, if you’re Italian or need to show your palate a little tough love. They are better in one of Power’ cocktails.
- In a shaker glass, add 2 ounces bourbon (Power uses Bulleit), 1/2 ounce Dolan Blanc vermouth, 1/2 ounce Amaro Averna and a dash Angostura Bitters. Stir over ice.
- Strain over fresh ice into a highball glass. Finish with a lemon twist.
Chandra Lam, Director of Mixology
Southern Wine & Spirits
Probably the most talked about cocktail event in recent memory was the wedding reception of Daniel Lucariello and Chandra Lam.
Lam is director of mixology at Southern Wine & Spirits, and many of the town’s top bartenders donated their time to mix up their best drinks.
Dave Power had to work, but he dropped off a small keg of a drink called a Bartender’s Handshake, a formidably bitter blend of Campari and Fernet Branca, touched with a little Coca Cola. “Dave took it to the next level,” says Newman. “He didn’t just add Coke, he carbonated the whole thing.”
Lam apparently survived the Bartender’s Handshake. Nevertheless, she wasn’t available to go out on the Whiskey Trail with the bartenders and me, partly because she was going on her honeymoon, partly because she probably has too much sense.
She did, however, come up with one of the most dazzling of the whiskey cocktails.
“I absolutely am a whiskey drinker,” says Lam. “I put this drink together because I wanted all these flavors together. It’s always fun to create a drink just because you want to drink it.”
Lam’s Smokey Aperitif is a symphony of bourbon, honey—and bacon. In fact, the recipe calls for bacon-infused bourbon.
Infusing bourbon with bacon is a tricky process that requires melting bacon fat into the spirit, chilling it until the fat solidifies and then straining out the fat with cheesecloth, leaving only the flavor behind.
Lam suggests Bulleit bourbon, which has a higher percentage of rye than most. That makes it spicier and better able to stand up to the smokiness of the bacon and the sweetness of the honey.
She adds Aperol, an Italian bitter orange aperitif, because the slight bitterness whets your palate for a second sip of the cocktail.
The recipe calls for four or five leaves of basil. Why so much? “Bacon and basil are a match made in heaven,” she insists. “If you have big basil leaves, you can use only three. Anyway, you strain out the basil after you muddle it.”
If infusing your bourbon with bacon sounds like too much trouble, Lam came up with a variation of this drink for Roy Yamaguchi’s Tavern at Princeville.
“They don’t infuse the bourbon, and they use maple syrup instead of honey,” says Lam. “But they just garnish the drink with a big, fat hunk of bacon that you can eat along with the drink, and get the same effect.”
- In a shaker glass, muddle 5 to 6 basil leaves. Then add 2 ounces bacon-Infused Bulleit Bourbon, 1/2 ounce Aperol, 1 ounce fresh lemon sweet-and-sour mix, and 1/4 ounce honey syrup.
- Add ice, shake and strain over ice into bucket glass. Garnish with a basil leaf and strip of crispy bacon.
Four Seasons Maui
Although I’m a writer, not a bartender, several years ago I set out to create a whiskey cocktail that even people who didn’t like whiskey would like. It needed balance: sweet, sour and a touch of bitter. It had to have enough whiskey to be worth a bourbon drinker’s time, but, on first sip, it couldn’t have the whiskey blast that puts off so many drinkers.
I never got it quite right. Then I talked to Dale DeGroff. DeGroff is a legend, the former head bartender of New York’s Rainbow Room, consultant to Sex and the City, author of two definitive cocktail books.
I explained my problem. I had the basic spirits and the bitters, but the balance was off.
Off the top of his head, DeGroff told me what to do. “Don’t muddle oranges, muddle lemon, and use a touch of orange juice.”
About a year later, DeGroff was back in town, doing a cocktail event at the Halekulani. I told him his advice worked. “What did you call the drink?” he asked.
“It’s called a Smile.”
He banged his forehead. “I wish I’d thought of that name. Who wouldn’t want a smile?”
The only bartender in Hawaii who makes a Smile is Linda Walsh, who presides most evenings over the open-air Lobby Bar of the Four Seasons Maui. Walsh is the only one who reliably has all the ingredients, like honey syrup and West Indian Orange Bitters (Angostura just won’t do in this drink).
She is also the only one patient enough to let me teach it to her. She was skeptical at first, then she tasted it. “It’s actually good,” she said in amazement. Being a pro, she now makes a more consistent drink than I can manage.
“I’m mainly a wine drinker,” she says. “But when I want a whiskey drink, I drink a Smile.”
- Muddle a lemon wedge at the bottom of an old-fashioned glass with two dashes of Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters and about 1/2 ounce of honey syrup. (Honey syrup is a cinch to make, just add hot water to honey until it pours nicely.)
- Add 2 ounces Maker’s Mark Bourbon, 1 ounce of the Italian cognac-based liqueur, Tuaca, and 1 ounce of freshly squeezed orange juice. Stir. Add ice.
- You can garnish with a maraschino cherry, which looks cheerful peeking through the bottom of the drink. Walsh, being a Four Seasons bartender, garnishes with an orchid.