Movers and Shakers: Hawaii's Up and Coming Bartenders
Meet Honolulu's new crop of bartenders who approach drinks like chefs craft dishes.
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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.”