“It’s not the most respected cocktail,” says Christian Taibi, bar manager at Mahina & Sun’s (located at Waikiki’s Surfjack Hotel). Its novelty comes from its color due to the use of blue curacao, which Taibi says is “purely visual.” And while the rum in a traditional Blue Hawaii adds flavor, the vodka is only added to give the drink more of a kick; as a bartender at the Hilton Hawaiian Village’s Tropics Bar & Grill told me, the secret to a good Blue Hawaii is “lots of vodka.”
It’s a drink for tourists, not connoisseurs. But then, that was always the point. The cocktail was created in 1957 by legendary bartender Harry Yee, who worked at the Hilton Hawaiian Village for thirty years and also created such drinks as the Tropical Itch and Wahine’s Delight. The drink’s sweetness came from having twice as much mixer as alcohol, as seen in the original recipe (with the ingredients meant to be added in this order): three ounces fresh pineapple juice, one ounce sweet and sour, a half ounce of blue curacao (“preferably Bols”), and three-quarters ounce each of vodka and Puerto Rican rum. “Stir gently, garnish with pineapple slice and orchid. Serve with Aloha.”
Bols had asked Yee to create a cocktail using their new blue curacao, and what better way to use the color than to conjure up memories of the blue surf of the islands? Hence the drink’s romantic appeal and why it, along with the Mai Tai, is so heavily associated with Hawaii. From the canned cocktail iteration you’ll find at the ubiquitous ABC Stores in Waikiki to the freshly made offerings at the area’s top hotels, the Blue Hawaii is one of the visitors’ most frequently ordered cocktails.
“It’s basically a rum and pineapple drink with blue food coloring,” says Taibi. “At the time, it was revolutionary. No one had done something like it before. But over the years, a lot of things have happened with variations on that.” Taibi offered me a taste-test comparison, first making a Blue Hawaii using the traditional recipe. “I want you to see how one-dimensional it is. Clearly, it’s a rum and pineapple drink. Blue obviously has nothing to do other than being a visual element. The vodka does nothing but add alcohol. The sweet and sour just kind of connects the dots between the pineapple juice, the sweetness, and the blue curacao. That’s all it’s really doing.”
“But if you can think past the visual and make sure that you get the look right, now, how do we make this taste really well?” he continues. “What we do with any cocktail, we try to really emphasize balance. You don’t want anything to be too sweet, too strong, too sour; you want everything to be balanced where you don’t even know what’s in it. You just like it.”
On a previous visit to Mahina & Sun’s, bartender Ian made me a Blue Hawaii using gin instead of vodka; not quite to my taste. Taibi’s variation on the Blue Hawaii dubbed the Surf’s Up, used the basic ingredients— featuring KoHana Hawaiian Agricole Rum, Pau Maui Vodka, and Giffard Curacao Blue — and gave them a twist via an allspice dram. “It’s more of a liqueur,” Taibi explains. “Basically, you get all those Christmassy flavors of allspice. And instead of using simple syrup, I’m using a cinnamon syrup that we make in-house. What this is doing is it’s kind of connecting the dots; the allspice, the caramel flavors of the rum, and the pineapple juice. It’s giving you that full circle of flavors. And just a little bit of fresh lemon juice and lime juice that gives you the citrus component. Think of it like Thai food; you get the salty, the savory, the sweet and sour, and everything combined together makes the perfect balance.”
Fresh ingredients are key. “Instead of using Dole pineapple juice, we use fresh-squeezed juice. If you’re not going fresh, you’re cheating. And considering that pineapple juice is a major component, let’s emphasize it; we’ll add a little allspice, we’ll add a little cinnamon to just bring up that brightness of the pineapple.” No detail is overlooked; the ice is crushed (also called pebbled) and not cubed. “Crushed ice is that happy medium between regular ice and a frozen drink,” says Taibi. “It keeps the drink very, very cold.”
In a word: delectable. And what a high bar it sets as far as other Blue Hawaii drinks you’ll find around Waikiki. Surprisingly, neither bar I visited at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, the Blue Hawaii’s home, adheres to Harry Yee’s original recipe. Tapa Bar’s Blue Hawaii dispended with rum and was made of vodka, blue curacao, lemon sour, and soda (for Tapa’s bartender, the sour mix was key; he disapproved of using pineapple). Tropics’ Blue Hawaii also eschewed rum, using Drake’s Organic vodka, blue curacao, sweet & sour, and club soda. No orchid, wedge of pineapple, or crushed ice. Not terribly imaginative.
Nor was there any rum to be found at the Blue Hawaii served at the Koa Oasis, an outdoor bar on the walkway between the Hilton and central Waikiki. The drink featured Drake’s Organic Ultra-Premium vodka, blue curacao, and pineapple juice, the bartender proudly pointing out that the vodka is distilled twelve times; “It’s better than Grey Goose!” I sipped on this attractively layered drink less than an hour after I’d checked into my hotel, and it was a welcome-to-the-island beverage that went down smoothly.
Duke’s Waikiki also offers consistently good drinks, especially if head bartender Jesse Greenleaf is in charge. Their Blue Hawaii is another layered drink that’s designed to please. I also checked out the Heyday, located poolside at the White Sands Hotel. The vibe is ’60s retro (complete with a bubble machine), but the drinks are up-to-date. The Blue Hawaii wasn’t on the menu, but the bartender kindly agreed to make me one following the traditional recipe (rum and vodka) and using fresh ingredients; homemade sweet & sour mix and freshly squeezed juice. Delicious.
“It’s nice to have a drink in technicolor,” says Taibi. “Think about it; in 1957 [when the Blue Hawaii was created], not everybody had a color TV yet.” And a Blue Hawaii, like other tiki cocktails, is about conjuring up a mood as much as providing refreshment. “What’s the lure? It’s more than just a cocktail,” Taibi says. “It’s a feeling. It’s a place. A place that when you’re sitting in your office, and you’re closing your eyes, and you’re wishing you weren’t there — where are you? You’re on that island, drinking that drink, listening to that music. You’re in that ocean. You’re stoking an emotion. That’s what tropical drinks do. They stoke an emotion. It’s like — we’ve made it. We’re here. The cocktail becomes a dream. A dream that’s come true.”
Photos by Gillian Gaar: