Take Me To Your Liquor
Foodie culture is reaching rampancy now that we fancy ourselves fine diners. But since the 1980s–that era of bad taste and cocaine–cocktails have mostly been used to get us from Point A to Drunk. We went for the fast and sweet. If blow brought us up, Long Island Iced Teas, Sexes on the Beach and Tom Cruise in Cocktail took us down. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Now, we’ve slowed down. We care about what goes into our bodies. Give me a bartender that cares more about what goes into his shaker than doing tricks with it. I don’t want a drink from a Harlem Globetrotter; I want a cocktail by a proper mixologist. Let what has happened to food in Hawaii also elevate the drink with which we whet our appetites.
That’s the idea behind Hawaii Cocktail Week and the Pacific Sessions (HCW), an inaugural symposium of industry masters. Mike Prasad, founder of HCW and co-owner of Hawaii Bitters (Also the mind behind the twittering food trucks of So-Cal), says the festival aims to bring together the best bartenders in the Pacific region to raise appreciation for the craft. It’s no short order. Registration is open for affairs including Sazerac, tequila and St. Germain tastings, cocktail and food pairings and seminars such as “Designing Bars That Make Money,” “The Lost Art of Technical Free-Pouring” and “Getting Spicy with Manny Hinojosa.” A kickoff event coincides with Night Market on Sat., Feb. 16 in Kakaako.
If this sounds anything like New Orleans’s Tales of the Cocktail Festival, you’re onto something: Prasad envisions HCW to be “what Tales is in Louisiana to this part of the world. There are so many unique flavors in the Pacific region,” he said over drinks at Pint + Jigger, where Kyle Reutner and owner Dave Newman tend the bar. “[HWC] can help build a progressive cocktail scene in Hawaii.” In brief, it could do for booze what Restaurant Week did for food.
Newman brought over a magic formula he calls the Polygamy ($10), a combination of orange liqueur, lemon juice, citrus bitters, Aperol and your liquor of choice. He says it doesn’t matter what you choose–his ratio will make it work. Mine, with gin and lilikoi bitters, hit me in the back of the mouth and floated down my spine like a feather.
My favorite Reutner drink was his daiquiri ($10). Classic, white, foggy with ice crystals and served in a Hemingway-esque coupette glass, there’s nothing girly about it. Reutner is set to pour for a catamaran Cruzan Cruise during HCW ($50).
As kitchens are to Restaurant Week, a good chunk of local bars is involved with HCW. Justin Park and The Manifest will hold several events: One of the most curious is a presentation by Master Bartender Takayuki Suzuki of the Park Hotel Tokyo that looks at the significance of Japanese whisky and ice. As for Park, who presides over one of Oahu’s best whiskey bars at The Manifest–it may be cliché to call a bartender’s style pre-Prohibition. But in this case, he is our best example, updating classic recipes with local flair. He mixed me a combination of a Liberal and a Brooklyn, rye whiskey drinks that use a sweet or dry vermouth, Amer Picon and either bitters or maraschino liqueur. He calls it the Blue Collar ($10) and serves it cold, but it felt as warm and sweet as a night under a flannel blanket soaked in vermouth.
Second to none
Last year, Park won Don the Beachcomber’s World’s Best Mai Tai award. But out of the 30 rum slingers, the runner-up, Roxanne Siebert of V-Lounge and The Safehouse, was only one point behind. She modestly says HWC will give her a chance to learn from those she doesn’t usually get to see.
Siebert adds that she’s miffed at the lack of women mixologists in town. “It’s an underrepresented group,” she says. “But I can’t say anything like that, because it’ll just piss people off.” Siebert finds liberation through her libations, crafting feminine drinks that kick. Her Gin It to Win It ($10) is refreshing, frothy and crisp with a swift bite–Miss America in a cage fight. Siebert added lavender to Falernum and mixed it with muddled cucumber, yuzu bitters, egg whites and gin. “It could almost taste like soap,” she said, grinning mischievously. But it doesn’t; it’s delicious. Siebert’s also known for her Baron Rose, a rare gin drink with rose petals and rose water that she can only make with undisclosed homemade ingredients.
Julian Walstrom, bar manager at Salt Bar & Kitchen in Kaimuki, says a drink’s ingredients can affect one’s entire gustatory experience. “A little goes a long way,” he counsels. For his Revival ($10), a twist on the classic Corpse Reviver, he uses just an eighth of an ounce of absinthe. SALT’s is the only local bar to offer such a broad selection of the anise-flavored spirit, and Walstrom will demonstrate the ways to drink it at HCW. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding about absinthe,” he said. “It was never illegal, for one. It’s been a legal import since the ‘30s, and all that hallucination stuff is a hoax.” Granted, if you drink enough of anything, you’re in for a trip.
Walstrom will demonstrate the less traditional, but more exciting, “Czech method” of pouring absinthe. “The French would scold me for this,” he said as he lit it aflame. Since the classic way requires a slow drip of cold water over sugar into a glass of absinthe for 30 minutes, it’s impractical in our culture of instant gratification. Walstrom’s is an expeditious style that speeds up a sugar cube’s dilution by melting it. Hallucinations or none, having a midday absinthe on an empty stomach turned my insides into a Bob Ross painting of happy clouds.
Joey Gottesman has built a career as the man behind the bartenders behind the bar. He’s known as the Bar Rescuer–Hawaii’s Gordon Ramsay, except constructive and nice. He’s the spirits specialist and mixologist for Young’s Market Hawaii. Meeting with him at Rivals Lounge in Waikiki, a beneficiary of his skill, was an education; he brought with him two Negroni-inspired recipes, both aged 39 days, and made two fresh cocktails with the exact same ingredients. It demonstrated how an aging process (the act of keeping alcohol in contact with a foreign agent, say, wood chips) or a detail as small as the shape of the ice in your glass could affect a cocktail. “There are only seven cocktails in the world,” he said. “Like the five mother sauces. Everything else is just some variation of those drinks.” During seven years as a bartender, I never learned so much as I did in an hour with Gottesman. “Any bartender can make a good drink with a bunch of ingredients in a shaker. But take it down to four ingredients and see how you can fine tune your recipe,” he said. It was like a private, miniature HCW seminar.
Each of these bartenders varies in style, background and technique, but have one philosophy in common: It’s better to spend $15 on a drink you’ll enjoy for 45 minutes than to spend $6 every 10 minutes on rum and Cokes. Of course, there will always be Hello Kitty shots–and people who order them. Let ‘em have it. If you’re looking for a complex drink from the simple formula of a spirit, some sugar, bitters and water, Gottesman, Newman, Park, Reutner, Siebert and Walstrom all get it. They know. Join them and learn something, while enjoying yourself in the process.