Local Cocktails with a Twist
Jesse Greenleaf and Amie Fujiwara / It takes more than a tiki glass and an umbrella garnish to make a truly Hawaiian cocktail. Most cocktails that are considered Hawaiian–like the ubiquitous Mai Tai–were invented elsewhere and adopted onto menus here.
Duke’s Waikiki bartenders Jesse Greenleaf and Amie Fujiwara set the record straight in their new book, The Cocktail Handbook. It’s full of recipes, tips, behind-the-bar anecdotes and all of the cocktail recipes are for original or signature drinks made by Hawaii’s veteran bartenders. There’s a chapter devoted to riffs on the Mai Tai. The Ala Wai Tai features spiced rum, blackberry brandy and fresh pineapple. The Wild Hawaiian lives up to its name as a boilermaker for the tropics: Mix vodka, amaretto and pineapple juice in a tall glass, then drop in a shot glass of Chambord and Grand Marnier. (Drink with caution!) Like it spicy? The Bloody Samurai is a Bloody Mary reworked with sake, tonkatsu sauce and fresh wasabi.
Also in the book are bartenders’ words of wisdom: “Whistling for attention works with dogs and horses. Bartenders, not so much.”
The Weekly met with Greenleaf and Fujiwara to talk story and, yes, enjoy a few cocktails.
What was the impetus for writing this book?
Jesse Greenleaf: There’s a huge misconception about tropical drinks, that they’re all Hawaiian drinks. But in fact 90 percent of the drinks that people drink while they’re visiting here were made in California or Cuba or the Philippines. We wanted to feature drinks that are really from Hawaii.
What was the process of writing the book like?
JG: We went after bartenders who love the art of bartending… Amie Fujiwara: …who take the time to make up their own drinks. JG: We went outer island. We talked to 40 or 50 bartenders on Maui. We were just a couple showing up at bars with notebooks and very large thirsts. We’d just ask, “What’s the best drink? What do you like to make?”
Aside from being invented in Hawaii, what makes a cocktail truly Hawaiian?
JG: Local ingredients. We have such abundance of juices and nectars and fruits here.
AF: Another thing is your location. We’re lucky enough to be at Duke’s, so people are walking up in their bathing suits, drinking their cocktail on the beach. That’s what makes it feel like a tropical drink. JG: The sun is setting…Diamond Head is over your left shoulder….Henry Kapono is playing around the corner…
What do you think makes the Hawaii cocktail scene unique?
JG: On the mainland, bars come and go. They’ll be around for two or three years, just a flash in the pan. Hawaii is unique. Once a place gets up and going, if it’s worth its weight, it’s in it for the long haul.
How do you see it changing?
AF: We’re the older generation now. We’ve been in the business for a long time, but you don’t realize who’s behind you until they show up at a competition. All of a sudden you’re like, who are these kids with their berries and their fresh fruits and they’re stealing-my-award drinks? JG: They’re making gelées and foams, and brûléeing fruit and roasting peppers.
AF: It’s like we need to write another book!
What ingredients or techniques are you especially excited about?
AF: We just started making our own infusions. It was so easy to do and it was awesome. Once we did it, it was like, why don’t we do this more? JG: I’m working on a “bar-den”–a garden at home that’s specific to what you’d use in a drink. I have hanging boxes with mint, basil, rosemary, thyme, Thai peppers, cantaloupe, strawberries, banana peppers… You can make a whole menagerie of drinks just from what you have outside.
Do you have any tips for people who want to make cocktails at home?
AF: Start with a basic simple recipe and add a couple of things that you want to try. Start with vodka. It’s a very neutral, easy ingredient. It’s like plain pasta.
JG: Run with your imagination. Don’t limit yourself just because you’ve never heard of it before.
What’s your go-to cocktail?
AF: Any bartender will tell you we’re pretty basic. We like to go to Nobu or the Edition and try things, but those can’t be your go-to drink because you can’t get those drinks everywhere. For me, it’s mandarin [vodka] and soda. Or a glass of chardonnay. JG: Chilled Grand Marnier. AF: Now that is most bartenders’ favorite shot. It’s a very old-school shot. Hands down, the chilled “grand-ma” is gonna be a thumbs up. It’s sweet, it’s mellow and it has a nice punch too.
And you two are partners in life as well, right?
AF: Yep. We’ve known each other since 1985. We met in high school and we later both ended up working at Duke’s. We dated for a year before we told anybody there. JG: We were working together three to four shifts a week. Because of that, when events came up–a drink contest, a TV show, whatever–it ended up being us as a team behind the bar. We’ve just symbiotically worked really well together.
Meet the Authors
The release party for The Cocktail Handbook is 4:30-6pm, Tuesday, March 8, at Duke’s Waikiki. Jesse Greenleaf and Amie Fujiwara will sign books and talk tiki. $20 cover includes cocktails, pupus and a copy of the book.