Mai Tai Halekulani - best Hawaiian cocktail in Honolulu
Gillian G. Gaar/Mai Tai Halekulani

One of the great pleasures of being in Hawaii is sitting outside in the sun, sipping a tropical drink, while contemplating the gorgeous views on offer. Happily, there’s no shortage of cocktails to sample. And while rum is nearly as ubiquitous in a Hawaiian drink as a wedge of pineapple, a fresh orchid, or a small paper umbrella, it’s not the only ingredient you’ll find when you step out to imbibe. Here, five cocktails not to miss — and where to find them in Honolulu — on your next tropical trip.

1. Mai Tai
A Mai Tai is the drink that usually comes to mind when the words “Hawaiian cocktail” are mentioned. Its distinctive multi-colored look comes from using white rum as the base and adding a float of dark rum on top. Orange curaçao and orgeat syrup are also key ingredients, along with fresh juices. There’s no better place to enjoy a Mai Tai than House Without a Key at Halekulani, where the outdoor cocktail seating gives you a view of both Diamond Head, the sunset, and graceful hula performances. House Without a Key’s cocktail features three different kinds of rum and is decorated with a slice of lime, a sprig of mint, a stick of sugar cane, and an orchid — also making it the prettiest Mai Tai. The restaurant’s “Hale Tai” is swirled with spiced and coconut rums and lilikoi (passionfruit) juice, making it a bit sweeter than the regular Mai Tai.


2. Tropical Itch
This is the drink that gives you more bang for your buck; in addition to rum, the recipe also calls for a shot of bourbon. Lilikoi juice sweetens the mix, and it’s topped by a float of dark rum. The cocktail was created by the legendary Henry Yee, a bartender at the Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel for more than 30 years (he also created other well-known drinks like the Blue Hawaii). The gimmick with this cocktail is that it’s served with a bamboo backscratcher instead of a swizzle stick — to scratch your “itch.” Try it while taking in the nightly entertainment at the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani’s Splash Bar or the Waikiki Beach Marriott. Thursday nights are especially recommended at the Marriott, thanks to the the weekly performances by the Keawe Ohana family that often feature special guests (including a recent Elvis sighting).


3. Bahama
You’ll find this drink at La Mariana Sailing Club, which is one of Honolulu’s few genuine old-school Tiki lounges still standing. The Bahama starts out like a Mai Tai, then tempers the alcohol with orange and pineapple juices, before finally adding Kahlua to give the potent drink a sweet smokiness. La Mariana isn’t easy to find; it’s hidden on a side street just off Sand Island Access Road, in an industrial area of Honolulu. But it’s well worth the effort to get there, for the ambience, hearty fare, and strong drinks. (Landlubbers should be especially wary of the La Mariana Tea: vodka, gin, rum, peach schnapps, triple sec, sweet and sour, “and a splash of cranberry juice.”)

4. Coconut Mojito
The Cuban classic gets a tropical spin at Duke’s Waikiki (which has two outposts in California). In the coconut mojito, all the ingredients of the standard mojito are present: rum, lime juice, and mint. But instead of simple syrup, this cocktail uses coconut cream for sweetness, as well as Kai Coconut Shochu (a liquor distilled from rice), making this blended beverage as refreshing as its Cuban counterpart. Get to Duke’s early if you want to snag a seat. If nothing’s available you can always find a space to stand in the raucous Barefoot Bar — or Henry Kapono’s weekly Sunday showcase, at Duke’s lower patio, is another big draw.

5. Captain’s Demise
This cocktail, like the Tropical Itch, combines two liquors for extra potency — spiced rum and blood orange vodka, in this case. It’s a fun, fizzy drink that also features cranberry juice and a splash of Sprite. You’ll find it at Rumfire, a lounge at the Sheraton Waikiki, where we suggest getting a table on the west side of the outside patio for a view of both Diamond Head and the sunset. And just in case you want to change it up after trying the Captain’s Demise, the cocktail menu is extensive, with five types of Mai Tais alone. Another favorite is Gidget’s Crush, a light, not-too-sweet concoction of citrus vodka, watermelon liqueur, lime juice, and Sprite.

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