Movers and Shakers: Hawaii's Up and Coming Bartenders
Meet Honolulu's new crop of bartenders who approach drinks like chefs craft dishes.
Illustration: Dana Paresa
It’s Tuesday at Safehouse at the Republik near Ala Moana. You could reach for a cocktail menu, but you’re just as likely to get a personal recommendation from Roxanne Siebert. Her feminine, lip-glossed and straightened-hair look is given an edge by the tattoos peeking out of a pink shirt and running down her arms. She’ll point out to anyone who’s interested (and no-big-deal-and-a-shrug if you aren’t) that she’s got a new drink tonight. What it is will depend on her mood, but it’s guaranteed to be anything but ordinary. A past Siebert concoction: a daiquiri-style mix of rum, raisin-soaked cognac, lime juice and Angostura bitters, garnished with a zest-wrapped sugar cane stick.
There have always been bartenders in Hawaii, but when it comes to craft cocktails, the Hawaii scene is a work in progress. Over the past decade, a handful of bartenders have been stepping away from the vodka-dominated wells of club bars and the blended coconut drinks of Waikiki beach spots. They’re willing to take a cue from cocktail cities—San Francisco and New York—but are determined to make their own contributions. Siebert is part of this newer group of bartenders who thirst for something new, innovative and complex.
Siebert works full-time at Safehouse at The Republik and does occasional gigs at V Lounge. Wherever she tends bar, if you ask her to, she’ll toss a little off-the-cuff creativity into your glass. “I can make anything I want for anybody and just see if they like it,” she says.
Her love of everything natural, organic, local and fresh (“I’m sometimes dubbed a hippie,” she says) translates into a style heavy with fruits, vegetables, herbs—blackberry and Frangelico, lavender and yuzu with gin. For a Bombay Sapphire competition, she mixed the gin with Velvet Falernum and dragon-fruit puree and crowned it with a cardamom and ginger foam, a drink she named the Khaleesi, for Game of Thrones’ “Mother of Dragons.”
Past studies in food and nutrition and love of cooking have taught Siebert the layering and balancing of flavors, helping her snag first place in last year’s Don Q cocktail competition, and going on to compete in Manhattan. More recently, she took second place at this past February’s Hawaii Cocktail Week Bacardi Pro/Am Cocktail competition. She has 10 years of behind-the-bar experience, but it’s only recently that she’s become regular on the competition circuit, consistently placing in the top three.
“I was more into cooking than bartending, but that was a really good influence for when I started doing mixology and craft cocktails,” Siebert says. “One and the other work together—you can use things from cooking for bartending, and things bartending with cooking. That’s my main focus.”
It might be stating the obvious, but bartenders seem to have a thing for tattoos. Justin Park, co-owner of Chinatown bar Manifest, is in his bartender uniform: tie and dress shirt with enough room at the ends of his rolled-up sleeves to reveal a substantial amount of ink. He looks right at home in Manifest’s hip blend of modern classy and punk, with its red brick, elegant reading lamps and alt/subculture art.
Everything, from Park’s suited-up formality to the vintage coupe glasses for certain drinks to the size and shape of the drink garnishes, is part of the carefully orchestrated Manifest experience, as envisioned by Park.
Park’s start was modest: a server at Buca di Beppo, eventually working his way up to bartender. He later joined forces with a few coworkers, starting up a short-lived sports bar. “I went from just being a clock-in employee to being in charge of everything,” he says. “You really feel the responsibilities ... and you learn quick.”
But it was from watching other bartenders, such as Thirtyninehotel’s Christian Self, compete in competitions that Park began to really learn about cocktails—and how bartending could be about more than just running a business. His friend and bandmate Brandon Reid offered him a partnership role in a brand new bar-of-their-own venture in 2009.
“There was really nothing holding me back. Nothing,” says Park, who adopted the duties of bar manager for the newly founded Manifest. “I said, ‘Let me take this over. I know I can do it.’”
He started traveling to cocktail meccas such as New York and San Francisco, tasting exotic whiskeys, gins and liqueurs not available in Hawaii. He visited some of the best bars in the country and allowed himself to be inspired; he added the Blue Collar cocktail from New York bar Milk and Honey to Manifest’s menu. From there, he began playing with concoctions himself, pushing Manifest to explore how quality cocktails and drinks could add to the bar-going experience and make it more than just music and a dance floor. He started expanding the offerings at Manifest, growing its whiskey collection from under 10 to more than a hundred. It was—and still is—a learning experience.
Park’s team at Manifest draws inspiration from trends, experiments, travels, regional flavors and, of course, the classics. The menu’s Hotel Street Sour, for instance, which won Park first place at the Bombay Sapphire/GQ Most Inspired Bartender Competition last year, is a twist on the 1920s Pisco sour, with lemongrass, kaffir lime, coconut and ginger providing a whiff of Honolulu’s Chinatown.
Park’s like a pusher for gateway cocktails, reading those who might be willing to branch out from their go-to gin and tonics or vodka-Red Bulls. “You can tell when they order something just because it’s what they always order,” he says.
“And every once in awhile, I’ll say, ‘Do you order that because you don’t know what else to get?’”
“Take Kaleo,” he says, gesturing at a patron across the bar. “He’s a regular here. Every drink Kaleo used to order was grape vodka and Sprite. Now Kaleo comes in and orders Hibiki, which is a blended Japanese whiskey, on ice. I’m not saying what he does now is ‘cooler,’ he just has a better idea of what he’s putting in his mouth, and maybe a more refined palate—not just for sweet fructose and stuff like that. People like Kaleo, who are interested, is what drives us to learn more, so we can offer more.”
12TH AVE GRILL
Across town, there’s no industrial grunge or casual counterculture punk aesthetic. This is Kaimuki, a little older, a little more family-friendly, a little more serious. Bar manager Julian Walstrom is more of an academic. He’s in the process of moving to 12th Ave Grill (which itself is moving to expanded, new digs), to work with another up-and-coming bartender—Mike Hall. But in Walstrom’s time developing the bar program at Salt, he cites consistency as one of his main focuses—always pouring to jigger, so that every drink by every bartender there is always the same, whether it be a gin and tonic or a Sazerac. In recent years, inspired by the previous bartender at Town, Dave Power, “who showed me that there’s really something more to cocktails than pouring wine and beer, or making a martini,” he buried himself in research on obscure spirits, reading up on the entire history of absinthe, and—recently—developing a particular fondness for ingredients out of the West Indies.
“That really spurred a deep passion for me,” Walstrom says. “Here’s something I’ve been doing for so long (10 years) and there’s a whole other realm of it that I haven’t even touched upon.”
Six months ago, he discovered Kronan, a “really one-of-a-kind” blend of sugar cane liqueurs with a delicate blend of sweet, spice and floral. But would the obscure name throw people off? Walstrom introduced it in a cocktail with whiskey, mole bitters and lemon bitters and dubbed it Kronan the Barbarian. “People would see it and say: ‘I want to try that drink just based off the name!’” he says. He later changed it to the Instant Gratification, named by a regular who loved it so much, he got it every single day.
“[People] do want to come to Salt and try something they’ve never had before,” he says, singling out regions like Kakaako and Kaimuki as areas that people go for the newest trends, areas that attract a demographic ripe and eager for something unique. “It’s like: ‘What’s hip? What’s cool right now?’”
Just a short walk down Waialae, the bar at Town restaurant has been home to some of Hawaii’s most influential bartenders: the aforementioned Dave Power, now co-owner of The Feral Pig bar and restaurant on Kauai and more recently Kyle Reutner of Hawaii Bitters Co. Jordan Edwards, Town’s newest manager, had some seriously big shoes to fill.
Edwards is a quiet, easygoing, glass-half-full kind of guy. “I like all kinds of alcohol,” he insists, listing even fallen-out-of-favor vodka as having significance in a bar. He can be as adventurous or as traditional as the customer wants to be. He loves exotic requests for things like a spicy mezcal drink that’ll test his creative whims ... but that isn’t always what happens. It’s post-dinner drinks time at Town when he picks out a mini-tasting of personal favorite bourbons for a man who declares an interest in exploring whiskeys. That same night, at the other end of the bar, a woman asks for a rum drink, the beginning of a potentially exciting creative exchange. It turns into a disappointing rum-and-pineapple-juice request. “That actually does happen sometimes,” says Edwards with a laugh. “You list something for them, and they just get so confused, and just say, ‘Vodka cranberry! Vodka cranberry! I’m like, shit, let me just do it for you! And you’ll like it!’”
Despite being a relative newcomer to Hawaii, Edwards is not new to craft cocktails, though his career started off on a very different trajectory. After getting his degree in sociology, he began working at San Francisco restaurant Aziza, first as a busser and then as a bartender. While there, he was able to meet and learn from great bartenders such as Christopher Longoria, classic cocktail experts like Bar Agricole’s Thad Vogler, and, from the palate of chef/owner Mourad Lahlou, who led Aziza to a Michelin star, the first Moroccan restaurant to receive one.
“Every day, Mourad would bring in a fresh ingredient and say ‘Hey, do something with this!’” Edwards says.
Edwards brings that level of experimentation and commitment to fresh ingredients to the Town menu, where he highlights unique regional elements such as mountain apple or seasonal tastes like the warmth of bourbon, cinnamon and nutmeg in winter and lighter citrus, gin and rum themes in summertime. Right now, you can savor a 100-percent local Ernesto cocktail, made with local rum, MAO lime, grapefruit and Kaimuki rosemary syrup or a summery drink of tequila and strawberry-rhubarb jam. And for off-the-menu adventurers, lately, he’s been mixing an ulu horchata.
From Edwards’ point of view, it was a throw-it-and-see-what-sticks experimentation that really pushed Hawaii’s bar scene to where it is now. “It was bartenders doing their own thing,” says Edwards, citing Dave Newman’s Pint and Jigger as an example of one of Honolulu’s first real cocktail bars, and one that, since its opening a year ago, has really grabbed the attention of Honolulu’s bar goers. “[Honolulu] needs it. People are craving it. You’re always going to have drinkers and people always wanting to go out to bars—might as well have good ones.”
Which suggests, in this nascent stage of development, the ecosystem is fragile and can still be small enough to frustrate progress.
As if to illustrate the point, Siebert’s own future may be up in the air, far down the road. Her travels across the country have her eyeing some of her favorite East Coast cities as potential next steps. For her, it’s about wanting variety. “You can only see everything in Hawaii once. Then you’ve seen everything. If you lived in New York, you could never go to the same place twice if you tried! To me, that’s exciting.” Right now, though, she’s too happy with where she is and too curious to see what’s next to move anytime soon. Walstrom, however, has more immediate plans to move out of the bartending gig. Next year he’ll be transitioning into graduate school. It will be the close of a decade of pouring and learning; he’s ready for something new as well.
Of course, the “brain drain” concept isn’t new for many of Honolulu’s industries, from culinary to tech, and each faces its own challenges in market, audience and talent.
But for his part, Park’s hopeful. And willing to hold up his end of the bargain. “I’m sure it was small in San Francisco at one point, I’m sure it was small in New York at one point,” he says. “But it’s the idea of it growing—and people’s interest in it—that would drive it to become big. And the only way it happens is if you talk about it with people, or try to show someone something that they didn’t already know.” Moaning about it being too small right here, right now?
“That’s how you stay small.”