Bar Reviews: The Big Island of Hawai’i

For the week of Independence Day, my wife and I were lucky enough to take a trip to the big island of Hawai’i. As always, I spent a little time researching the bar scene in advance of the trip, and going into the trip I was not that optimistic. My fears were largely confirmed when the bartender at one of the fairly expensive hotel bars we visited agreed to make me a Negroni and returned with an odd combination of gin, campari, and soda water. I guess we can call that a Negronicano for the mixture of the recipes for the Negroni and Americano?

We did find two places that I liked however, and conveniently they are on opposite sides of the island. You’re always within an hour of a good drink no matter where you are on the island!

Okolemaluna Tiki Lounge is located in Kona (really Kailua), and is rated one of the 10 best tiki bars by Imbibe Magazine. This rating is well deserved, and Okolemaluna is easily the best tiki bar that I have ever visited (and one of the best bars I’ve visited overall). It was a bit dark inside and I didn’t have my nice camera handy, so the picture doesn’t show much.

The first drink that I had was the Surf Room Mai Tai, which is based on the Royal Hawaiian Hotel’s Mai Tai recipe (the subject of the lawsuit between Trader Vic and the Royal Hawaiian to establish the original creator of the Mai Tai). This is the second drink down on the left side of the menu, which is pictured below. The menu on Okolemaluna’s web site may be more useful than my picture.

We visited Okolemaluna three times during the trip (I liked it that much), so I had the chance to sample a bunch of their cocktails. On the first trip, I had the aforementioned Surf Room Mai Tai and Missionary’s Downfall, the latter of which is a fantastic drink by Don the Beachcomber that I must learn how to make myself. On the second visit, I tried the Tropical Itch and a martini-style drink that used Lemon Hart 151 as the base. On our final visit, I tried the Trader Vic Mai Tai and the Mele Kalikimaka, the latter of which was developed by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry specifically for the Okolemaluna. Everything was great, but Missionary’s Downfall and the Lemon Hart 151 martini stand out.

The staff at Okolemaluna are also extremely friendly and fun to talk with. We were lucky enough to sit in front of Brice, one of the owners, on the first night, and he was an excellent host. We had a discussion about the various Hawaiian distillers and their spirits, and he gave me a taste of Haleakala Distillers’ Maui Okolehao. Okolehao is a native Hawaiian liquor that is distilled in part from the ti root and was not produced commercially for many years (read the Wikipedia article on Okolehao for more details on this spirit). We couldn’t leave without buying an Okolemaluna tiki mug.

Although it’s unlikely that we’ll make it back to the big island anytime soon, I hope that I’ll get a chance to visit again the next time that I make the trip.

Hilo Bay Cafe is, not surprisingly, located in Hilo, nearly spitting distance from the new Walmart (spitting on the Walmart is something that I suspect many Hilo residents would be likely to do). They had a nice signature cocktail menu with many original, though vodka-heavy, creations. I tried the Fires of Mauna Loa, which was a black coffee-based cocktail that incorporated Booker’s bourbon, Kahlua, and Mac Nut liqueur. It was tasty and definitely preferable to the strawberry-basil spritzer my wife ordered, which was a bit too sweet. If you find yourself in Hilo, then I recommend that you check this place out.

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