Take a tour of Honolulu’s top cocktail bars
BY ERIN SMITH / Special to the Star-Advertiser
Honolulu has long been a city of culinary delights. But a bar destination? Until a few years ago, upscale bars tucked away inside Waikiki hotels were the prime refuge for cocktail purists, with the Halekulani’s Lewers Lounge a leader of the pack.
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Fast-forward. Now bars and restaurants across Oahu offer fresh, one-of-a-kind drink recipes, and Honolulu’s mixologists are keeping up with the Joneses with classic cocktails that rival those in any major international city.
We checked out a diverse sampling of local bars and restaurants that are helping to shape this golden era for cocktail connoisseurs: Pint + Jigger in Moiliili, Downbeat Lounge and Manifest in Chinatown, Genius Lounge in Waikiki, and Bevy in Kakaako.
At each we found just what we’d been looking for: a bar with a distinct personality, shaped by its passionate bar managers.
Some embrace the term “mixologist”; some would rather just get down to business and bring you the best drink they can. All offer a welcoming atmosphere and world-class drink menu.
Cocktails are becoming a major piece of the bar-going experience, as mixologists get more creative with ingredients, drink lists and methods. Old Fashioneds with a twist, Oke Punch in a Mason jar, Gingerjitos, Poha Berry Cobblers — these are some of the handcrafted cocktails to be found in Honolulu, and you may not yet have given them a try. They are as delicious and sophisticated as they sound.
Let’s start the tour: Pint + Jigger’s mantra is simple. “We wanted the bar to be approachable for a wide range of people but as progressive as we can make it,” said bar manager and co-owner Dave Newman.
Inspired by literature and the beatniks, Pint + Jigger is designed to feel like you stepped out of Oahu for a moment, and into a Kerouac novel. You won’t find mai tais and poke here. What you will find is a Mesquite Smoked Manhattan, made with fire and a large ice cube; unusual menu items such as Brandy and Bacon Strawberries; and quotations about alcohol from comedians to former presidents printed on the menu.
As I sat at the bar with Newman, sipping one of those Manhattans, he got me up to speed with what’s been happening at Pint + Jigger.
“We’re so dedicated to the craft, we bought a $12,000 ice machine,” he said. “We also use a sous-vide method for some of our drinks — we were written up in Popular Science magazine for that.” How cool.
Sous-vide, French for “under pressure,” is a method of water-bath cooking at low temperatures. Some sous-vide techniques take weeks; Newman can whip up barrel-aged flavors in just three days.
Standing behind the deep wood bar of Pint + Jigger, Newman deftly summed up the latest, dominant concept in cocktails: farm-to-table.
For the past decade or so, it’s been a popular phrase in the dining world. The idea, for those who are fashionably late to the party, is to take fresh ingredients from sources that are as local as possible and create dishes from the ground up.
“With farm-to-table becoming so prevalent, it was only a matter of time before cocktails caught up with that,” Newman said. “Why eat an organic meal served with a drink designed from a source that’s only 10 percent juice? Might as well squeeze some fresh lemons and limes and make a quality drink.”
The man has a point. It’s a natural progression: Bring the kitchen to the cocktail.
Newman’s vision of the perfect cocktail changed when he came across a drink called the Aviation Cocktail. Blown away by its complexity, he worked with a mentor who drilled him with flashcards to memorize classic drink ingredients. Flash forward to 2014, and Pint + Jigger is set to open its second location at the Hee Hing Plaza in Kapahulu by the end of the year.
Happy hour at Pint + Jigger is a good time to beat the crowd and talk to a bartender to get the story behind a cocktail. The bar gets busy at night; it’s often packed, even late at night on weekdays, with patrons who’ve glommed on to the bar’s deep drink menu and hearty menu offerings.
IN THE HEART of Waikiki lies another gem of a cocktail bar, where any would-be Einstein would do well to stop in and have a drink.
The Genius Lounge, upstairs over a clothing store on Lewers Street, is breezy, chic and inviting.
Bar manager Rob Smith hails from a culinary background, so for the Genius Lounge drink list, his idea was to “make a dish in each cocktail.” His interest in handcrafted cocktails partially stemmed from a common complaint among bartenders in Hawaii: He grew tired of making mai tais and pina coladas all day.
With the opportunity to create his own menu of specially crafted cocktails, Smith headed straight to the kitchen to gather ingredients.
Unique to the bar is its Japanese influence. Wasabi and ginger appear as ingredients on the drink list, refreshing the palates of local shoppers and tourists.
Gems at Genius Lounge are a palate-cleansing Gingerjito, which pairs well with pastas, and the Bloody Genius, which features wasabi uzu, pepper from Japan. I stopped in after a Dior fashion event last month and tried a fabulously refreshing Acai Berry Sipper. It was so good, I nearly forgot the couture I had just seen.
DOWNTOWN WORKERS or denizens might turn to Chinatown for pau hana relief.
Pull up a bar stool at the Downbeat Lounge and toast the day’s accomplishments with a Corpse Reviver #2, made with Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin. (Who doesn’t need a Corpse Reviver on a Monday?)
Known as a music venue and a haven for the independent-minded, Downbeat Lounge is more than just the sum of its rock ‘n’ roll parts.
“Music definitely inspired our drink menu,” said bar manager Nicole Jones. “Americana, punk rock, it’s all in there.” But as far as the clientele and the ambience go, Downbeat Lounge is designed as a relaxed hangout for patrons from all walks of life and has a new, top-notch drink menu to prove it.
After honing her skills at Speakeasy night at the now-closed thirtyninehotel in Chinatown, Jones has been quietly mixing her way to the forefront of the Honolulu bartender scene. Jones is a big supporter of sustainable ingredients and using local sources, and her drink menu features Big Island honey, lime juice and Koloa Rum from Kauai.
Her signature cocktail on the menu is the Oke Punch, which Jones calls “feminine yet hard.” The drink features Moonshine, St. Germain and dried hibiscus flowers and is served in a Mason jar, something that “girls love.”
According to the always red-lipped Jones, the perfect song to be playing in the background while sipping the Oke Punch is “anything by Mazzy Star.”
If you think you need skinny jeans to hang out at Downbeat, just come as you are and give the lounge another look. Located directly next door to sister restaurant the Downbeat Diner, the Lounge is designed for all types. Sure, the hipster crowd loves the rock ‘n’ roll ambience and nighttime indie rock, but who wouldn’t want to stop in for Whiskey Wednesdays, and when drinks are just five bucks?
ALSO LAID-BACK in Chinatown: Manifest.
Bar manager and local artist Justin Park says he serves up a “50/50-style” drink menu: 50 percent classics and 50 percent innovative cocktails.
“Designing the drink menu that way allows customers to see where we came from and where we’re trying to go,” he said. “There’s more to a cocktail than just the drink. It’s the experience.”
Park will head to the mainland shortly to compete in the United States Bartenders Guild competition, representing Hawaii. As one of only a handful of selected competitors, Park will compete against other top-level mixologists to represent the U.S. in an international contest, and he’s been practicing his signature cocktails and showmanship before his trip north.
When it comes to Manifest, I’ve always had a great time. Just as with the drink menu, Manifest has a mainstream vibe that meshes seamlessly with an artsy edge.
What is happening in the space depends on the time of day. In the afternoon, patrons often work on their laptops in the high-ceilinged, exposed-brick-walled space. Day and night, the bar is both mellow and “cool.”
The ideal time to stop by for a cocktail is happy hour, when patrons can try a signature old-fashioned at a bargain price.
When nighttime rolls around, Manifest hosts local DJs. It’s easier just to grab a vodka soda when you’re dealing with a packed club.
ANYONE WHO knows anything about classic cocktails in Honolulu knows one bartender who will complete this cocktail tour. It’s Christian Self.
Partial owner and bar manager of Bevy, a new lounge and restaurant in Kakaako, Self is widely regarded as one of the city’s top mixologists.
Self’s mother is an artist and his father a scientist, influences that he seems to apply to his cocktail craft. Shake what your mama gave you, indeed.
When Self is behind the bar, lemongrass fuses with candied ginger foam, pistachios mix with lime and basil flirts with celery bitters. He’s a refined mad scientist with an artistic sensibility.
After mastering the classics, Self apprenticed with world-renowned mixologist Francesco Lafranconi, a turn that exposed him to drinks from all over the world and sparked his interest in learning more about the craft.
With Bevy, Self said, the idea is to provide sophistication without being pretentious. In that it succeeds.
The bar is comfortable, artful in an understated way, and boasts a unique food menu. Patrons might want to try the happy-hour oysters, paired with a champagne drink like “Death in the Afternoon,” or reserve a table on the last Tuesday of the month for Late Night Supper Club, a four-course dinner with limited seating which pairs dishes with cocktails. (For tickets, email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
IN THE BAR WORLD of Honolulu, there’s a strong, interconnected support system. Some might call it aloha.
Every bar manager I spoke to referenced another bar manager’s achievements and drink lists.
“Everyone is pushing each other but it’s not competition,” as Newman of Pint + Jigger put it.
“Everybody doing the classic cocktails makes good drinks. At the end of the day, you have to be able to make a good cocktail.”
Newman, current president of the United States Bartenders Guild’s Hawaii chapter, said he is constantly amazed by how many local bartenders volunteer for charity events. “We actually end up with too many volunteers,” he said, impressed.
If any of these bars are looking for volunteers to try out their new cocktails, I’ll be president of that board. Leave the mai tais to mainlanders; it’s prime time to fill your dreams — and glasses — with Honolulu’s best, fresh, innovative drinks.
Erin Smith is a singer and guitarist who performs as a solo artist and with Maui-based Na Hoku Hanohano Award-nominated band The Throwdowns. Born in Canada, she moved to Hawaii in 2004 and now resides in Kailua. Contact her via e-mail or follow her on Twitter.