Explore Oahu

Hawaii's Classic Cocktails: The Mai Tai and Blue Hawaii

Tropical cocktails to sip on during your Hawaii vacation

They’re no longer just bars but liquid kitchens. And they’re not bartenders; they’re mixologists. For the past decade, the art of crafting a cocktail has been an intoxicating trend to watch and sip. Bitters, sours and just about every ingredient has been muddled, coated, dusted, frosted and flamed to achieve some form of magical elixir. And while the cocktail landscape may have changed, the Blue Hawai‘i and the mai tai still remain the preferred libations among many of our visitors.

Blue Hawaiii cocktail
Enjoy a Blue Hawaii, which was invented by legendary bartender Harry Yee. (©Isaac Aronjilla)

Considered the godfather of Hawaiian cocktails, Harry Yee—who celebrated his 100th birthday in September—is credited with having helped spread tiki bars and tiki culture during the mid-20th century, both in Hawai‘i and in the continental United States. With orchids, parasols and even a Chinese back scratcher as garnishes, the exotic drinks of our islands are some of the most unusual in the world. Yee created 15 of them, including the Banana Daiquiri and Tropical Itch. He invented the Blue Hawai‘i in 1957 in Waikīkī because nobody knew what to do with blue Curaçao.

This mellow, fruity electric blue libation is just a little older than Hawaiian statehood, preceding Elvis Presley’s movie and subsequent hit song by the same name. Slide aside the island garnishes (paper parasol, pineapple, orange wheel or perhaps a big Hawaiian blossom) and experience the liquid version of that melancholy serenade to the tropics, full of exotic pineapple and tart orange notes.

There are many variations on the recipe for this drink—a subject of slight controversy—ranging from light rum to dark rum, and sometimes including Crème de Coconut or coconut rum. Then, of course, there’s the age-old dilemma: to blend, or not to blend? Its hue will vary, just like our Hawaiian waters, but the color is always unmistakably blue.

“Those days when tourists came in, they said, ‘Give me a Hawaiian drink,’” Yee was quoted by author Rick Carroll. “We didn’t have any Hawaiian drinks. There were no such things as exotic drinks. Or tropical drinks from Hawai‘i. So we started thinking, gee, we better start making something for the tourists—something catchy, not too strong and nice to sip.”

In oft-cited cocktail lore, the late Vic Bergeron of Trader Vic’s fame is credited with creating the mai tai. In a 1947 book, “The Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide (Revised),” Bergeron explained how, in 1944, after success with several exotic rum drinks, he felt a new drink was needed. “I thought about all the really successful drinks—martinis, Manhattans, daiquiris, all basically simple drinks,” Bergeron wrote. “I took down a bottle of 17-year old rum. It was J. Wray & Nephew from Jamaica—surprisingly golden in color, medium bodied but with the rich pungent flavor particular to the Jamaican blends.”

Mai Tai
The Mai Tai Bar was named after the popular tropical cocktail. (©Isaac Aronjilla)

He infused the rum with fresh lime, orange Curaçao from Holland, a dash of rock candy syrup and a dollop of French orgeat for a subtle almond flavor. He then added a generous amount of shaved ice and shook it vigorously by hand to produce “the marriage” he was after. The San Francisco native gave the first two to friends Eastham and Carrie Guild from Tahiti. They took one sip and said: “Mai tai roa ae.” In Tahitian this means “out of this world, the best.” And a legend was born. In 1953, Bergeron introduced the mai tai to Hawai‘i at the Royal Hawaiian and Moana hotels in Waikīkī.

“There’s been a lot of conversation over the beginning of the Mai Tai,” Bergeron told Carroll. “And I want to get the record straight. I originated the Mai Tai.”

Another story involves Trader Vic’s amicable rival, Don the Beachcomber, who claimed he created the mai tai first in 1933 at his newly opened bar in Hollywood.

The Beachcomber’s recipe is more complex than that of Trader Vic’s, calling for both dark and golden rum, Angostura bitters, anise-flavored liquor and Falernum—a Caribbean syrup that is now difficult to obtain. Today, the mai tai is served throughout the Islands, and O‘ahu’s mixologists have also come up with their own unique variations.

Harry K. Yee’s Original Blue Hawai‘i

In a 12-ounce glass, add ice, then pour, in this order:

  • 3 ozs. fresh pineapple juice,
  • 1 oz. sweet and sour
  • ½  oz. blue Curaçao (preferably Bols)
  • 3/4 oz. vodka
  • 3/4 oz. Puerto Rican rum ("It's a better taste," Yee says.)

Stir gently, garnish with pineapple slice and vanda orchid.

Vic Bergeron’s Original Mai Tai

In a shaker, add:

  • 1 oz. lime juice,
  • ¼ oz. orgeat syrup
  • ½  oz. orange Curaçao
  • ¼ oz.  simple syrup
  • 1 oz. aged Jamaican rum
  • 1 oz. Martinique agricole rhum

Shake all ingredients over ice, pour into a double old-fashioned glass. Fill to rim with crushed ice. Garnish with a spent lime shell (peel side up) and a sprig of mint.

The iconic mai tai and Blue Hawaii at House Without A Key (©Isaac Aronjilla)