Whimsy ruled the garnishes. One bartender tied maile lei around the bottom of his drinks. Another set up enormous sprays of bamboo and orchids in hers. A bartender in a hula dress adorned her drinks with little palm trees made out of ginger sticks and mint leaves, added dry ice and served them to the judges while chanting an oli about the goddess Pele.
Pineapple made a major showing, both as a fresh-squeezed juice and a garnish. A Kona bartender slipped pineapple wedges the size of small pizza slices onto the rims of her glasses. A Maui bartender used whole baby pineapples—the size of a thumb and still on the stalk—as a garnish. They leaned cockily from the glasses, arousing envy among the other bartenders. Another Maui bartender took a Mr. Potato Head approach, carving little tikis from pineapple spears and using almonds, raspberries and mint to make mouths, noses, eyes and hair.
And there was fire. One crowd-pleasing bartender used a butane torch to ignite the sugarcane stick-and-cherry garnishes that he had soaked overnight in Bacardi 151. Another tried a similar trick using a lighter, but the flames flickered unimpressively. “You need a searing heat to light a garnish,” noted the first bartender later.
Yet another bartender employed a special garnish designed to enforce his belief that a mai tai should not be stirred by its drinker. Instead of pouring the traditional layer of dark rum on the top of his drink, he put the rum inside a hollowed-out lime mounted on the side of the glass. The lime gradually released the dark rum only as the other layers disappeared. “You should drink a mai tai from the bottom to the top so you can taste all the different layers of flavor,” he contended.
For a festival dedicated to the world’s foremost umbrella drink, little paper parasols were oddly scarce. But maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that a group of serious mixologists gathered to give the mai tai its due would not reach for the gimmickiest of garnishes. Whether or not the parasol offers real sun protection for the ice, as legions of umbrella drinkers have claimed, it undoubtedly adds to the mai tai’s image as a novelty, not a serious cocktail. Only two bartenders used parasols (“If it don’t got a parasol, it ain’t a mai tai,” one said). Most of the bartenders just qui-etly omitted them, but one felt compelled to make a point, doing a sort of interpretive striptease before mixing her drink. Off came her pink paisley shirt and the multi-colored umbrella hat, and there she stood in sleeveless tuxedo shirt with black bow tie. To drive home the message, she named her mai tai the Black Tie and garnished it with a piece of black licorice twisted into a bow tie. “I wanted to emphasize that themai tai can be elegant,” she said afterward.
The most traditional drink was prepared by the final contestant, Brice Ginardi, a professed tikiphile and former Arizona water department employee who moved to Hawai‘i to open a tiki bar. Where other mixologists experimented with unproven ingredients like aloe juice and hibiscus tea, Ginardi went old school, recreating Don the Beachcomber’s Mai Tai Swizzle. Rather than prepare a drink for each judge, he made one enormous drink in a triangular bowl adorned with Easter Island heads, and gave each judge an extra-long straw. To serve it he dispatched an attractive young woman with a flower in her hair, whom he called The Mystery Girl. Later he explained that both the communal bowl and The Mystery Girl are reprises from the golden era of tiki bars, a time he speaks of wistfully. “Back in the ’50s and ’60s the drinks were painstakingly made with fresh local ingredients for people’s enjoyment,” he said. Then came the ’70s. Exotic cocktails grew debased, the umbrella drink became a standing joke and something good was lost. “I’m not trying to badmouth anyone for making bad mai tais,” Ginardi said. “I just think we can do better.”