Bar report: The Manifest

Left: Bar manager Justin Park; right: Old Fashioned. Photos by Rae Huo

The Manifest
In Chinatown, 32 N. Hotel St.,

Manifest is among a small handful of bars leading Honolulu's cocktail scene. You're in good hands, whether it's classics or modern takes that strike your fancy.

The Vibe
Essentially an unfinished box, with bare brick walls, a concrete bar top and metal stools. One guest said it "takes you out of Hawaii," and "That's actually what keeps me coming back here."

To focus on the drinks, it's best to go early (but not on Tuesdays, when the place is packed with trivia night addicts). Later in the evening, the place turns clublike, with themes such as Super Handsome Saturday.

Located in the former space of a risqué book store, The Manifest opened in 2009 with just one bourbon, two gins, no rye or single-malt, and at least 15 vodkas, many of them flavored. Now it carries enough American whiskeys, gins, and rums to fill a back bar 16-feet wide, while scaling down the vodkas to less than half a dozen.

This kind of selection is difficult to find elsewhere.

The Menu (so many options!)
The menu offers cocktails for newbies and aficionados alike. The "JP Collins" is bar manager Justin Park's take on the classic Collins (gin, lemon, sugar, ice, and soda), with Japanese Hakushu whiskey filling in for the gin, which gives the drink a smooth, subtle smokiness with a long finish.

In general, drink lists sometimes fail to mention their drinks' most relevant ingredients. Not at Manifest. A separate chalkboard devoted to the"Old Fashioned of the Week" makes sure to list the spirit, bitters, and sugar. A recent week's Old Fashioned featured Bulleit bourbon, sweetened by Grade B maple syrup, and aromatized with Bittercube Jamaican #1 bitters. It reminded me of fall in New England, with added notes of allspice, ginger, black pepper, cinnamon and vanilla. While it was a touch sweet for my taste—perhaps a drier bourbon or even a mild rye would provide a better backdrop—it was nicely original, easily accessible, and definitely drinkable.

Off the menu
Park made me a "Not-So-Navy Grog," his take on the Donn Beach tiki classic that traditionally uses three rums, grapefruit juice, honey syrup, and soda. Park's version substitutes a Campari-like bitter aperitif for Puerto Rican rum, ups the ante with a 151-proof Demerara rum, and uses orange juice and ginger beer in place of the grapefruit and soda. The result is complex and fits right in with the sophistication of classic tiki drinks: savory, almost velvety mouthfeel, righteously complemented by the two rums and aperitif. If only it was served with crushed ice in a tiki mug, or better yet, a cone of packed ice, the way they did it at the Mai-Kai in the 1950s.

The Manifest doesn't serve food, so eat first!

Drinks average about $10, reasonable for the quality of the ingredients, the abilities of the bartenders, and the care that goes into each drink.

To be improved
The Manifest has a great spirit collection, though they (like many Hawaii bars) are most lacking in the rum category (though they're currently working on improving this). I would love to see them expand into the world of rhum agricole (grassy, earthy rums from Martinique), or carry other types of demerara rums.

Cocktail geek Randy Wong is a former bartender and beverage consultant. His cocktails have been cited in many books, including Off The Shelf, Drink & Tell, Food & Wine’s Cocktails 2010: Mixologist All-Stars, Beachbum Berry: Remixed, and at the StarChefs International Chefs Congress in NYC. He’s known for his expert knowledge on tiki music and cocktails.