Story by Becky Speere | Photography by Mieko Horikoshi
Daryl Smith has been the mixologist at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua for over two decades, which means he’s made more than a few (thousand) mai tais over the years. “Beaches, palm trees, and sunshine come to mind when people think of mai tais,” he says as a broad smile lights his face, “but what many don’t know is the long history of the liquor that goes into the iconic cocktail.” I’m about to get a lesson in that liquor. My husband Chris and I are sitting at the bar in the resort’s Alaloa Lounge. We’ve come for one of its cocktail classes, which are offered for island guests and residents. Today’s focus is rum.
Before each of us are four glasses, placed there by Daryl. Three of the glasses are filled—one with simple syrup, one with fresh lime juice, one with rum. Daryl makes us feel like we’re back in chemistry class as he tells us to mix a little of each into the fourth glass, the empty one. We pour a dash of syrup, of lime, and of rum, swirl the mixture, and then sip it. “I made mine too sweet,” my husband announces. “Mine is juuust right,” I say, savoring the flavor.
“What you’ve made is a Ti Punch,” says Daryl. He reminds us that before refrigeration made ice widely available, beverages were served at room temperature. “In the 1800s, deckhands on ships to the Caribbean were given eight ounces of rum each day,” he says. My eyes widen as I imagine myself consuming a cup of the distillate every twenty-four hours. Daryl adds that lime juice was also portioned out to prevent scurvy.
Distillates are typically made from a core crop, which is how a particularliquor may become associated with a certain part of the world. For vodka, that crop is potatoes or grain, grown in Russian soil. For tequila, it’s agave grown under the Mexican sun. And for rum, it’s sugarcane grown near the equator in island nations like Cuba, Jamaica, and Hawai‘i. As cocktail culture took off in the twentieth century, bars like Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber made rum drinks famous, and the mai tai became the most famous of them all.
But people on Maui want to see Maui reflected in their cocktails, says Daryl. “Bar managers are curating a cocktail menu that reflects the island. Liliko‘i and macadamia nut orgeat are a couple of ingredients that for many are magical.” We sample three of Daryl’s different takes on the mai tai, each of which he created with a Maui focus. There’s the Olu Mai Tai, which includes macadamia nut syrup and pineapple-orange jam; the B.T. Signature Mai Tai, which features the macadamia nut orgeat as well as a twenty-three-year-old Roz Zacapa rum; and the Ali‘i Mai Tai, for which Daryl gives us the recipe (below).
“The more I learn about sugarcane, the more I realize a rum’s flavor can be influenced by many factors,” says Daryl, “like the variety of sugarcane it’s made from, the amount of sunlight, wind, and rain the cane gets, and the type of soil it’s grown in. Another influencer is caskaging.” He holds up a bottle of Special Reserve El Dorado rum, aged for fifteen years in oak cask barrels, and announces, “You’ll find green, grassy notes withvanilla and coconut.”
Tasting complete, the resort’s executive chef Kenny Sniffen and executive sous chef Meredith Manee pop into the lounge and suggest we sample Alaloa’s new menu. As our time with Daryl winds down, he shares that classes aren’t only for mai tai lovers. “If guests prefer a scotch or gin tasting,” he says, “we are happy to accommodate.”
Soon Chris and I are feasting on hulihuli chicken, avocado and edamame hummus, cheesy pizza, and chunky quesadillas topped with avocado. We sample a maki roll with asparagus, cucumber, and salmon as well as a vegan offering with pickled red onion and pineapple sauerkraut. The final dish of grilled steak is served with the best beer-battered onion rings I’ve tasted. When Chef Meredith returns and sees our happy looks, she smiles, knowing we’ll be back. Maybe next time we’ll taste scotch. It would go well with those onion rings.
Ali‘i Mai Tai Recipe
Daryl Smith’s top-shelf mai tai is made with a rum trifecta: a Hawai‘i Island agricole rum, a Martinique fifteen-year old cask-aged rum, and a Jamaican pineapple rum. The trio is married with almond orgeat syrup, fresh local limes and a splash of Cynar. “The goal,” says Smith, “is big aromatics, fresh flavors, and a long complex finish. The Ali‘i is our crossover interpretation, taking elements from the classic original mai tai recipe while also using more current techniques. A dash of Cynar gives us a unique, very refreshing, and above all delicious tiki cocktail.”
Yield: one cocktail
- 3/4 oz. Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple Rum
- 3/4 oz. Bacardi Reserva Ocho Rum
- 3/4 oz. Kuleana Huihui Rum
- 1/2 oz. Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao
- 1/2 oz. almond orgeat syrup
- 3/4 oz. lime juice
- 1/2 oz. Cynar
Method: Combine all ingredients. Shake. Strain. Serve over crushed ice with a festive garnish: trimmed pineapple leaves, a dehydrated pineapple slice or two, and/or a torched cube of fresh pineapple.