Mixologist Joey Gottesman is having a barrel of fun

What’s shakin’?

What’s new behind the bar? Well, somebody has to do the research. And we did.

Up in Smoke

In 1933, famed hotelier Don the Beachcomber, who had restaurants and other hospitality operations here and elsewhere, came up with a beautiful, “exotic” rum drink. It contained lime, pineapple and a dark rum float.

In 1999, Spirit Specialist and Master Mixologist Joey Gottesman, then a hotel barman but now with Better Brands, decided he’d make a variation of the classic mai tai.

First, a squeeze of lime. (It’s local, Gottesman confides with a wink.) Then, in place of the traditional orgeat (almond syrup), he pours in fallarnum–a syrup he’s crafted with ginger, almond, lime, and clove. Next he fortifies the drink with orange curacao and silver rum. In goes fresh-pressed grapefruit juice from Govinda’s. Gottesman rinses the glass with absinthe. And then, the smoke.

When he worked there, Gottesman watched chefs at the then W Waikiki use smoke to flavor their cooking. He’d been tinkering with smoke himself.

“The Royal Hawaiian Rig” is an apparatus put together with chopsticks and rubber bands, a DIY dream, and Gottesmen uses it to infuse smoke into the drink he’s creating. He fills the chamber with kiawe wood and oak seasoned in Jack Daniel’s, lights a chef’s torch, and captures the smoke in a glass. In a moment of magic, Gottesman shakes smoke and drink, infusing smokiness into the cocktail. He pours a heavy, dark rum float. The finishing touch is caramelized pineapple (for char that complements the smoke), a cherry, and an umbrella.

“The drink tastes better with the parasol,” Gottesman laughs.

The innovative mai tai met with acclaim. Although still new in its use, smoke has been gaining popularity. You can capture smoke, like Gottesman did. Or you can take a component that is smoked and add it to a drink for a wild deepening of flavor.

Wowza, smoky boat drinks. And what else is new in the wonderful world of cocktails? Well…

Ginger and Elderflower

Two brothers are the creators of St-Germaine and Domaine de Canton liqueurs. St-Germaine is an artisanal elderflower liqueur, made in France, from elderflowers handpicked in the foothills of the Alps. And it pops up all over Honolulu cocktail menus. Bartenders like St-Germaine because of its floral fragrance and smooth flavor.

“It tastes a little like lychee,” says the affable bartender at SALT (3605 Waialae Ave., 744-7567; []) He lifts a slim bottle from behind the rail. The SALT martini, made with vodka, elderflower, lime, and cranberry juice, does taste a little like lychee ($6, happy hour). Sweet, citrusy, and floral, it’s impossibly easy to drink.

Domaine de Canton also arrives in a sexy bottle, beveled, black and gold. The small-batch ginger liqueur is hand-crafted with fresh Vietnamese ginger, steeped in cognac, and mixed with a blend of herbs and spices, including vanilla and ginseng. Spicy!

Speaking of spice

If you climb the narrow staircase at Hotel 39 (39 Hotel St., 599-2552; []), you might come upon two friendly guys slicing limes behind the bar. Somebody else might walk by with a bucket of strawberries or a bottle of gin-soaked lemongrass. The bartender calls out for maple syrup to complete a drink she’s making.

Their version of the classic Pimm’s Cup is a dazzler in a tall glass, sparkly and not too sweet, layered with mint and basil ($7, happy hour). Everything is fresh, everything is real. Good ingredients make for good drinks. It can be more expensive for a bar to stock fresh juices and local limes, but when they do, the cocktails are brighter and more delicious.

You can get a strawberry basil martini, reputed to be tasty, at swanky Lewer’s Lounge at Halekulani Hotel (2199 Kalia Rd., 923-2311; []). (But not if you go in slippers. There’s a dress code.) Or you can get strawberries in your Dragon Fizz behind the bookcase at The Edition (1775 Ala Moana, 943-4800; [])($9, happy hour). Are herbs and fresh juices the hot new thing? “They’re our thing,” says the bartender at Hotel 39. It’s a good answer. Gotta drink what you like. What about local? Are local ingredients as important in the drink world as they are in the food world? Absolutely. Cocktails in Hawaii are influenced by regional cuisine, local flavors, classic drinks, the tastes that grow in the islands. But sometimes, it’s also fun to add something different.

Syrups and Reductions

Joey Gottesman takes a bag of jamaica (dried hibiscus flowers) and steeps them in hot water. He adds the tea to a bottle with melted sugar. He swirls the concoction and puts it on ice to chill. Voila! Jamaica syrup. Deep red in color, with a nice tamarind finish.

“Are infusions, like, so 2010?”

Well, kind of, says the mixologist. Syrups and reductions are the big thing now. The other big thing is barrel-aging.

More, um, fun than …

The small, 1.5 liter barrel sort of looks like a toy or a souvenir. But, it’s not. It’s a barrel (same kind used to store wine) full of Negroni, a classic gin cocktail. Gottesman mixed a big cocktail of gin, campari, bitters, and sweet vermouth. Then he poured it into the charred oak barrel he got from his cousin-in-law in California and let it sit for a few weeks. Over time, the cocktail extracts flavors from the wood, ages and mellows, takes on new colors. And, in the end, it becomes a totally different-tasting and -looking drink.

“It’s opening up a whole bunch of new possibilities,” says Gottesman. He adds that people can make barrel-aged cocktails in a variety of ways. Dave Power at the Feral Pig on Kauai is aging drinks in mason jars stuffed with wood chips. It’s a craft that’s accessible. Folks who home-brew beer or have their own stills can also barrel-age their own cocktails. So, it’s easy to get in on the fun. Because, in the end, cocktails are meant to be fun.