35th Hale ‘Aina Awards: Raise a Glass to SKY Waikīkī’s Colorful Cocktails and Secret Bar
There are two sides of SKY Waikīkī. You may be familiar with one, the restaurant/nightclub side known for its view of Waikīkī 19 floors above Kalākaua Avenue, but the venue also hides a secret bar behind a discreet panel in the wall, which a host unlocks via keypad.
TOP TO BOTTOM: Some of SKY Waikīkī’s new Aloha Life signature cocktails: Devil’s Swing, In the Shadows of Palm Trees and That Pink Drink.
Two bars with two sets of equally worthy cocktails earned SKY the Top Write-In vote for Best Cocktail in this year’s Hale ‘Aina Awards.
At Waikīkī’s only speakeasy, known as the BACKBAR, you need a password to enter. “You have to go hunting for the clue,” says director of mixology Jen Ackrill. It’s usually posted on SKY’s Instagram stories, but sometimes only for a few hours before they delete it. “It might go down just before we open.”
Ackrill says they started out being super selective with guests, only telling bartenders around town, who would then send patrons they knew would appreciate the concept of a hidden bar—a place for curated drinks and bespoke cocktails only (don’t expect any well drinks or happy hour deals here). They slowly expanded it to the public, first on Wednesdays only, then, as of November, Tuesdays through Sundays from 5 p.m. until closing.
DIRECTOR OF MIXOLOGY JEN ACKRILL LOVES MAKING DRINKS BASED ON MOVIES.
Ackrill enjoys concocting drinks based on guest requests. “I like when people do adjectives or movies,” she says, such as when a guest asked for a drink based on the movie The Professional. “I made this peach whiskey smash with a big piece of basil on top of it. I love that movie and I was super stoked on it. Somebody had also asked me about doing Blue Velvet so we did a drink with butterfly pea flower because it was blue and then it turned purple, and David Lynch movies are kinda like, what’s going on here?”
Only about 20 people at a time are welcome at the BACKBAR, which faces the mountains and city. “At night, it’s really, really beautiful. And you can make it a two-experience thing. You can watch the sunset at SKY and have some cocktails and transition back here for a more intimate evening.”
Even if you’re not feeling that adventurous, SKY’s cocktails are worth stopping in for. The menu changes every six months, with themes such as surf breaks and a “liquid itinerary” of spots to hit around the island. Right now, the Aloha Life menu features nine signature cocktails that include the Aloha My Friend, a play on an AMF (a popular drink whose name is too vulgar to print) with local vodka, gin and rum, and blue Curacao, liliko‘i, lemon and agave; the Mauna Kea Martini, a dirty martini with two types of gin, Ketel One vodka, olive juice and jalapeño tincture; and the Hala Kea Old Fashioned featuring two types of rum, banana liqueur, coffee-scented Angostura bitters and Bittermens hellfire shrub.
Make reservations in advance for the BACKBAR, an intimate space hidden behind a wall at SKY.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF SKY Waikīkī
“This [theme] feels like SKY. I think we’ve found something we can really latch on to,” Ackrill says. “It’s the identity of the venue. It vibes with the food, it vibes with the guest experience. There’s a creative freedom when you say the Aloha Life.”
One of Ackrill’s not-so-secret ingredients is Cocktail Artist-brand triple sec syrup, which she developed for the company. (The bottle features her face, bio and recipe for a mai tai. You can find it at Walmart nationwide.) She uses the orange liqueur, which tastes kind of like orange Tic Tacs, in the King’s Mai Tai. “It’s a classic take on a mai tai but we put scotch in it, because why not?” She even uses the triple sec at home in dishes like lemon bars and Thai coconut soup. “I think it’s cool we can get some national focus on what we’re doing here to show people we’re not making mai tais out of coconuts,” she says. However, “There are people who want it to stay the ’40s so there’s this dance you have to do. You want to show your travelers that you’re on par with everybody else but you wanna appease the tourists who came to Hawai‘i 20 years ago. A lot of people don’t want Hawai‘i to ever change because it leaves such an impression on them when they come here.”
Ackrill jokes about tattooing “give ’em what they want” on her arm. “The challenge is always to be able to give them what they want and still have your stamp on it and have your personality. It’s a good challenge. We try to give ’em what they want and be creative in that, too.”
Sky Waikīkī, 2270 Kalākaua Ave., 19th Floor, (808) 979-7590, skywaikiki.com