Local Experts Name Their Top Picks for Bourbon, Scotch, Whiskey, Beer, Wine, Champagne and Cocktails in Honolulu
What if you could choose your final drink on Earth? We asked Honolulu’s mixologists—men and women who concoct cocktails for a living—to describe what they’d want for that very last call.
This story originally ran in the March 2020 issue of HONOLULU Magazine with the title “One Last Drink.”
For his last libation, Honolulu restaurateur Dusty Grable would sip a glass of Black Maple Hill, a small-batch bourbon once produced in Kentucky. Make it a shot of rakomelo, a Greek brandy made with honey and cinnamon, for Ben Flores, beverage director at the HI Brau Room. Jerah Mikami, who tends bar at Suzie Wong’s Hideaway and Nico’s Pier 38, would order a simple scotch in an etched glass with a big ice cube.
Each drink tells part of a life story. Fête bartender Dave Power pauses behind the bar to mull over the question. He prepares and shakes a cocktail, delivers it, then returns to talk through some options. Power thinks back 25 years, when he and his wife were both exchange students living in Rome drinking 65-cent beers in a coffee shop along the Tiber River. He smiles, nods and says, “That would be a good last round.” He walks away to check on the couple eating dinner at the end of the bar before settling on his final answer, which he credits to Dave Newman, owner/proprietor of Pint + Jigger and speakeasy Harry’s Hardware Emporium. “Dave Newman has this tradition when bartenders come into town—he likes to take them on hikes and he’ll stash a bottle of Champagne in his backpack. So, he’ll go hike to a waterfall or some ridiculous view and open up a bottle of Champagne. And you’re like hanging out with really amazing people in this industry and nobody’s working, no one’s behind a bar; it’s a rare opportunity.” And that’s why Power would want that last drink to be Champagne, outside, with good people.
And Newman’s choice? “If I knew, my last drink would surely be a magnum or larger of grower Champagne.” Newman earned his reputation building the craft cocktail scene in Honolulu, promoting local ingredients and advocating for the food-and-beverage community, while remaining steadfastly unpretentious. Yet he says bubbly rises to the top of his list because it’s so versatile. “It wouldn’t matter what time of the day it was as Champagne is great in the morning or the evening,” he says. “It pairs with pretty much every kind of food. Drinks pretty good on its own as well. Besides that, I am always down for a glass of bubbles. Every time you open a bottle of Champagne it’s a celebration and I can’t think of a better way to end your life than with a celebration.”
Dave Newman (left) and dave powers at pint & jigger
With more than four decades of running bars in Hawai‘i, Bill Comerford can recall just about every kind of last call. The co-owner of O’Toole’s Irish Pub, Kelley O’Neil’s, Anna O’Brien’s and The Irish Rose Saloon has experienced the gamut: from charming and funny to wretchedly horrible.
After two health scares in 2019, Comerford has pondered his mortality recently and would keep that last drink Irish: whiskey and a red ale. “A 1-ounce pour of Redbreast 12, neat, and a pint of cold Smithwick’s,” to be specific. He likes the combo enough that, at O‘Toole’s, it’s already got his name on it. That means if you ask for a “Comerford,” you’ll get that shot and beer for a buck cheaper. If he really knew it was his last drink, Comerford says he’d upgrade to the 21-year-old Redbreast. “I consider it the nectar of Irish gods,” he explains.
bill comerford, o’toole’s
Jonathan Schwalbenitz, of Murphy’s Bar & Grill, would find his last drink many miles from home. For the past 28 years, he’s been serving beer, wine and cocktails at Murphy’s, from the lunch crowd to last call. He even earned a Hale ‘Aina gold best bartender award from HONOLULU Magazine. Schwalbenitz carefully considered several drinks before deciding: “I’d like it to be Glühwein from the Christmas market in Leipzig. It’s a warm mulled wine that you drink at Christmas.”
Schwalbenitz has traveled to Germany many times but never during the busy holiday season, since it’s tough to take time off from work then. If he knew his time was near, you’d find him grabbing a festive mug of Glühwein, maybe while strolling near that giant Advent calendar in a market that dates back to 1448.
Ku‘ulei Akuna, who tends bar at the Ritz-Carlton’s La Vie and Quiora restaurants and at Harry’s Hardware Emporium, would opt for a final Smoked Roots, a mezcal cocktail with ginger, yuzu and turmeric invented by her friend and fellow bartender, Allie Haines.
jonathan schwalbenitz, murphy’s bar & grill
For Akuna, mezcal is interesting for its long history, the labor-intensive way it’s made, as well as its smoky flavor. And the Smoked Roots drink showcases it so well that the team carried it through three workplaces: Stage, Merriman’s and, now, the Ritz-Carlton. “It’s fresh muddled ginger, turmeric-agave syrup, yuzu, a little lemon, shaken over ice, strained into a coupe glass and sprayed with a little Laphroaig over the top and candied ginger as a garnish.” She adds, “Mezcal is my favorite spirit if I had to choose one.”
ku‘ulei akuna, la vie, quiora and harry’s hardware emporium
Flores, at Kaka‘ako’s HI Brau Room, says his drink choice of rakomelo intertwines with memories of his Mediterranean honeymoon, which he calls “the most magic of times.” He smiles and leans forward as he describes the kindness of people in Greece who took time to steer him and his new bride to cool local spots far from the crowds of tourists. “To have that aroma and that flavor again would instantly take me back to the island of Crete,” Flores says.
ben flores, hi brau room
Grable’s beverage choice has origins closer to home. Now restaurant general manager for G Lion Group Hawai‘i, which includes the Ritz-Carlton restaurants, the Kamehameha Schools graduate first found Black Maple Hill bourbon in San Francisco, where he worked in the restaurant industry before returning to the Islands and co-founding Lucky Belly, Livestock Tavern and The Tchin Tchin! Bar.
When he moved home, Grable brought back cases of the bourbon, serving it at Lucky Belly alongside the restaurant’s big bowls of ramen. He kept buying it for himself and the restaurant. “I would give it away as wedding gifts because it was such a unique, special thing that I loved so much that I wanted to share it with everybody
dusty grable, g lion group hawai‘i
Suzie Wong’s Mikami says asking a bartender to choose a last cocktail is “like asking a parent which child you’d spend your last moment with. I’m torn between two drinks: the timeless Old Fashioned or a simple Scotch whisky on a very large ice cube sphere.”
She credits Newman with teaching her the proper way to mix an Old Fashioned when he mentored her at Pint + Jigger, after she’d worked at a series of nightclubs and dive bars. Mikami describes her drink epiphany like an action flick. “He grabs a mixing glass and chucks a sugar cube in there, zests an orange peel and throws in a few dashes of Angostura bitters, muddles everything until the zest is lost in the deep maroonish brown paste and free pours 2 ounces of Old Overholt Rye, throws in these not-your-normal huge ice cubes in the mixing glass and stirs … takes an orange and peels a zest, squeezing the zest over the cocktail and swaths the zest over the rim, and finishes with a Luxardo maraschino cherry.” She’s stunned by the final drink: “How can something so basic make such a beautiful drink? What is this sorcery?”
Mikami’s story could neatly end with her appreciation of Newman but it turns out her other last call drink makes for an ever better story: a scotch on the rocks, like her dad would drink. Her parents separated when she was in second grade, so she and her sister would visit their father in Japan every summer. “He was a typical old-school Japanese guy working every day, even on Saturdays, and he only drank beer and sake on the weeknights. His only day off was on Sundays and, man, did he celebrate. My dad made Sundays count.” She says he’d wake up at 6 in the morning, which he considered sleeping in, and cook breakfast, lunch and dinner while sipping on scotch.
“We’d wake up from all the commotion in the kitchen and he’d usher us in, still half asleep and confused. He’d get my sister and I his really nice scotch glasses that had those really fancy etchings on the side … fill our glasses with iced tea to make it look like we’re having what he’s having and cheers us as if we’ve been Sunday morning drinking buddies for the past 20 years.”
They would eat and chat, the two sober elementary school kids and their busy dad, watch TV, eat and drink, then nap. “He’d Saran-wrap the feast he’d just cooked up—sometimes if he’d had one too many he’d just Saran-wrap the whole table instead of dish by dish—and he’d pass out for like an hour or two while we played outside or cluelessly watched Japanese TV and he’d wake up and we’d do it all over again. We did this every Sunday of every summer till we were in high school.”
jerah mikami, suzie wong’s hideaway and nico’s pier 38
As they grew older, Mikami says they saw each other less, busy with lives far apart. A few years ago, her dad called to say he’d been diagnosed with cancer, and though he’d sounded optimistic, he died a few months later. Now she has a toddler of her own. And that last drink? “I’ve always wanted to have a real drink with my dad, a for-real drink, a real scotch in my fancy etched glass. … If I was going to leave this Earth, and, in the event that I run into my dad, in heaven or hell, wherever, I wouldn’t want to be a lightweight. I’d want to stretch the occasion the way he stretched those Sundays.”
Mikami and the others shared unique stories. But Grable touched on a theme that ran through them all: “Beverage has been such a big part of my life and relationships in my life that it really doesn’t matter what’s in the glass as long as it’s with the right people.”