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If you have it in you to pick yourself off that poolside chaise lounge, you’ll find creative establishments in downtown Honolulu, rivaling those in urban hubs closer to home—all shaken or stirred with island-grown infusions, a generous dose of aloha and zero pretension. “Hospitality always comes first,” says David Newman, the award-winning owner and bar manager at Pint + Jigger, of the close-knit group of bartenders in the city. “But we also push the envelope on craft cocktails.”
When you can, seek out those incorporating local produce that you just can’t get as fresh on the mainland: Kona coffee, sugar cane, hibiscus (the state flower) and passion fruit, known locally as lilikoi. Newman himself makes the Talventi, featuring cold-brew Kona, rye whiskey and Campari, with a house-made vanilla whipped cream floated on top.
Besides Pint + Jigger, there are plenty of places to drink and have a good meal, too. Just a few in-the-know favorites include Bevy (co-opened by acclaimed bartender Christian Self), Bar Leather Apron (prepare to be transported to Japan), The Pig & The Lady (ask for the sriracha-iced Cobra Commander, which gets spicier as it melts—“Drink fast, my friends!” advises Newman), The Tchin Tchin! Bar, Livestock Tavern and Lucky Belly (the last three of which are owned by the same innovative team). Whatever you do, drop in on Manulele Distillers before you leave, so you can take home a bottle or two of the meticulously hand-crafted Kō Hana Hawaiian agricole rum and keep the aloha vibe going.
Every night is (delightfully) Dark & Stormy on this island, if you want it to be. This being the birthplace of Gosling’s, the dark rum flows generously into it. “Rum is part of the culture,” says Alastair Jack, the partnership and promotions manager at the Bermuda Tourism Authority. Besides being more potent, the local version of the popular cocktail will also be more fiery than a Stateside version if you ask for Barritt’s Bermuda Stone ginger beer. It’s another native ingredient, which, like Gosling’s, was invented by a British transplant in the 1800s, and it has an extra-gingery bite.
For something fruitier, order up a Rum Swizzle. Better yet, get it at Swizzle Inn, which houses the island’s oldest pub and claims to have invented the national drink. It’s touristy but worth a visit nonetheless. Made with Gosling’s Black Seal rum, falernum and orange, lemon and pineapple juices, as well as other “secret ingredients,” this particular Swizzle comes with a warning on the menu, which intones: “This is a strong cocktail ...”
Beyond these tourist’s must-tries, the 20.6-square-mile island is studded with gems offering a change of pace. Two especially noteworthy destinations, both in Hamilton: Devil’s Isle and The Martini Bar at Barracuda Grill. Devil’s Isle takes its sister restaurant’s farm-to-table concept seriously and serves up mouthwatering drinks made with hand-pressed fruit juices and house-made liqueurs, sometimes topped with flavored foams.
The Martini Bar at Barracuda Grill serves much more than what its name implies. Its award-winning head bartender, Ryan Gibbons, hand-presses the citrus and incorporates flora in season, including prickly pears, loquats and Surinam cherries. The current official menu features classics that are, as he describes, “bold and spirit-forward, with an emphasis on high standards of technique.” But at the bar, many prefer to leave it completely up to him, at times requesting something built around what they like or even what they don’t like, knowing full well that he’ll convince them otherwise.
While Tiki as a vague tropical-jungle concept is strictly an American invention, its inspiration lies right here in the balmy South Seas. The word Tiki is Tahitian, referring to those human-faced stone or wood statues; so is maitai, meaning good or cool (as in “How are you?” “Maitai”). So, yes, Tiki-style cocktails dominate, but you’ll find spots here that do them authentically, lush with locally sourced ingredients, like pineapples, papaya, grapefruit and vanilla. So go ahead—you’ve flown this far—order the Mai Tai (forget it’s a California creation), and taste what a difference Tahitian rum and fresh Moorea pineapples can make. It’s Tiki without the tacky.
Beyond the handcrafted ingredients, savoring a cocktail here is about soaking in the equally intoxicating sunset. On the island of Tahiti itself, check out the Tiki Bar at the InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa, a favorite among visitors and locals alike. (Jonathan Reap, a managing director at Tahiti Tourisme, North America, strongly recommends the Chichi, which consists of vodka with coconut ice cream and pineapple juice).
On Bora Bora, check out Bloody Mary’s for its outrageously good Bloody Mary; MaiKai for its Champagne cocktail; Le St. James for that sublime feeling of sipping cocktails on top of the azure ocean; and the open-air Sunset Restaurant & Bar at Four Seasons Bora Bora for its mountain views and signature vanilla- and pineapple-infused Mahana (Tahitian for “sunset”).
It may be a little unfair to include Cuba, given its size compared to the smaller tropical-isle destinations. But it’s hard to ignore a spot so rich in cocktail history. This is the birthplace of the Mojito and Daiquiri after all and the inspiration for so many fantastic musical styles that make imbibing that much more fun. And while critics might note that state-run bars may lack inventive spark, several are, in fact, worth trekking to half an hour from the beach simply because of their storied pasts.
Your bucket list should include El Floridita, where Ernest Hemingway famously said he sipped his Daiquiris; La Bodeguita del Medio, where he preferred his Mojitos; the once celebrity-studded and resplendent Sloppy Joe’s Bar, refurbished and reopened almost 50 years after a fire shut it down; and the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where you should get (what else?) a Hotel Nacional, while enjoying the view of the Malecón from the back lawn.
While the drinks are solid in these legendary standbys, the bigger thrill may be in discovering a yet-unheralded gem, as independently owned establishments cautiously spring up in this new age for the city. Tapped-in tourists and Havana’s own stylish hipsters crowd into the cramped 304 O’Reilly (named after the street it’s on) for well-executed eats and drinks. “The cocktail menu is sprawling,” says Eddie Lubbers of Cuba Travel Network. And it’s often incredibly creative, with ingredients personally sourced by the owners. It recently opened a more spacious satellite space across the street called El Del Frente (“The One Out Front”). Treat yourself to the Mango Daiquiri or Bloody Mary, which is served with octopus.
To check out El Cocinero, conveniently located near Fábrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory), make your way up three flights of stairs. It’s worth the climb: The industrial-chic roof-terrace bar, where a cooking-oil factory used to be, serves dinner along with expertly made drinks, including fantastic Mojitos.
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If you like Piña Coladas, don’t go to La Factoría in Old San Juan, at least not yet. Co-owner and award-winning bartender Roberto Berdecia is still perfecting an artisanal version of Puerto Rico’s national drink (and the unofficial drink of vacationers everywhere). However, if you’re open to venturing into new territory, then look for its terracotta facade on the corner of San Jose and San Sebastian (there’s no sign), grab a stool and get comfortable.
La Factoría, which has made Drinks International’s World’s 50 Best Bars list for the past two years, creates its craft cocktails with the care of a chef putting together a special dish. Among the most popular: the Lavender Mule, made with Ketel One vodka, a house-made lavender-infused syrup, ginger tea and lime; and the Spiced Old Fashioned, which wakes up your taste buds with an array of spices, including clove and cardamom. The bar is connected to three more intimate but equally fantastic places to imbibe, each with its own personality: Vino, Shing a Ling and El Final.
For a Great Gatsby vibe, check out the dark, cozy speakeasy Bar La Unidad, at 562 Cuevillas (again, no sign). “I always order off the menu,” says Wesley Cullen, a local drinks connoisseur and the director of inspiration behind the soon-to-reopen El San Juan Hotel (which will feature no less than two cocktail spots). “Tell the bartenders what you like and how you feel, and they will surprise you with something delicious.” There’s also La Coctelera, where inventive cocktails brim with locally sourced ingredients. (Cullen likes the Rumba Beet Collins, made with beet soda.)
For a more fancy-night-out vibe, grab a spot at Santaella, where artisanal cocktails are a prelude, or finale, to a dinner sourced from a local farmers’ market. (Berdecia especially likes the Watermelon Mojito, which never gets diluted, thanks to the watermelon ice.) But what if you still want a Piña Colada? Berdecia recommends the Caribe Hilton hotel. While stories abound as to who actually invented the drink, many believe the bar here is responsible. In 1954, bartender Ramon “Monchito” Merrero decided to shake up rum together with coconut cream and pineapple juice, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Getting a Painkiller at Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke is almost a rite of passage in this part of the Caribbean. And while it’s a tourist fixture, the chill vibe, along with the rum concoction it invented back in the 1970s, is so irresistible that locals and expats can be found swigging there too. “The bar will tell you what’s in it but not the proportions,” says Rebecca Kinnear, a senior editor at Islands magazine.
For plenty more options, hop aboard a water taxi: At Rum Bar at Cooper Island Beach Club, you’ll find 160 rums from around the world, thanks to an active exchange program with ship captains. “We don’t do Painkillers here unless you request it,” says manager Glen Rooney. “We like inventing our own cocktails.” The bar keeps its own papaya, banana and coconut trees, as well as an herb garden, so the drinks, and flavors, are exceptionally fresh and, says Rooney, “never too sweet.” The light and rejuvenating Pink Grapefruit & Thyme, made with white rum and thyme-infused sugar syrup, is a current favorite.
In Tortola, Italian-Caribbean fusion isn’t as odd as it sounds, when you visit the airy, bayside Scaramouche. The husband-and-wife team is Italian, and so is the coffee and wine, but the vibe is distinctly Caribbean. She’s the chef; he’s the sort of bartender that’s not afraid to experiment. In Virgin Gorda, have a drink at CocoMaya, where its creative cocktail menu includes such tongue-in-cheek options as the Sucker Punch, an intriguing gin and St-Germain elderflower liqueur concoction that includes condensed milk, cherry and grapefruit juices, and basil leaves.