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The Top of Waikīkī Turns Itself Around With New Drinks

New cocktails offer fresh reason to trek to Waikīkī.


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The gin basil gimlet and Tradewinds Manhattan.
Photos: Gus Downes

 

Waikīkī’s spinning restaurant and bar is in the midst of a major upgrade. Construction is underway on an expansion, while chef Lance Kosaka has revamped the entire menu.

 

At a media preview event, reporters didn’t try the new grub. Instead, new “director of mixology” (official title) Jennifer Ackrill treated guests to selections from the updated cocktail menu.

 

A 17-year veteran behind the bar, Ackrill has worked at some of San Francisco’s top cocktail bars. She says she had a hard time even looking at the drinks she was tasked with replacing. “The menu wasn’t current in the ’90s,” says Ackrill.

 

Her focus is on fruity drinks that would pair well with a loud shirt. If you don’t have a sweet tooth, you’re in the wrong bar.

 

The drink called Top of Waikīkī is a holdover from the previous menu. It’s a Mai Tai, with a mix of light and dark rums and liliko‘i puree. It’s a well-made standard, with both rums doing their best to temper the sweetness of the juice. It’s similar to the new version of a Harvey Wallbanger, which here goes by Hawi Wallbangah.

 

The Moloka‘i Mule is the house version of a Moscow Mule, with the addition of rum. The ginger hits strong and lingers.

 

The gin basil gimlet is crisp, with the lime juice brightening the drink without making it sour, while a crushed basil leaf adds a pleasant, herbal aroma that could fool you into thinking it’s healthy.

 

The Firerock, a strawberry gin sour with Campari, is so bitter, it’s best reserved for those who wish they could get buzzed on Sour Patch candies.

 

The best drink on the menu is the Tradewinds Manhattan. Made with vermouth steeped with cinnamon, it starts out tasting like everything pleasant about eggnog, then mellows. It’s a dark, smooth, alcohol-forward cocktail, without the burn, and without the sweetness, that characterizes the rest of the menu.

 

Ackrill stresses consistency with her staff. They’ve taken great care to make sure everyone knows the ratios for every drink. “There’s only one way to make a margarita.” The resulting drinks are, for the most part, pleasant, sweet and fruity. It’s downright difficult to find the alcohol in most of them. When it’s there, you taste a whiff of dark rum against the passion fruit, and it’s clear they know what they’re doing.

 

Ackrill’s been tasked with finding a difficult balance: updating the tiki bar cocktails Waikīkī customers expect, without alienating the regulars who keep the place in business. She succeeds, though one has to wonder what Ackrill could do to a menu willing to take bolder risks.

 

Featured cocktails are $5 for happy hour, which runs twice nightly. The first is 4:30 to 7 p.m., then 9 to 11 p.m. Parking is free with validation.

 

Top of Waikīkī, 2270 Kalākaua Ave., 18th Floor, 923-3877.

 

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