Hawaii is famous for its beautiful beaches, technicolor sunsets, and world-class surfing. But when it comes to drinks, the state’s official cocktail might as well be a frozen, neon-colored, boozy concoction. But that’s only part of the story.
Just like finding the best waves, it pays to ask a local where to get a great drink that doesn’t come with a brain-freeze. Celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi was kind enough to share with me some of his favorite spots in Honolulu. Born and raised in Tokyo, he spent a lot of time as a kid in Hawaii, where his grandparents lived and his father grew up. (It’s no surprise he became an aficionado of the island’s cooking.) Yamaguchi later studied at the Culinary Institute of America before making his name cooking in some of Los Angeles’ hottest restaurants. He returned to Hawaii in 1988 to open his eponymous Roy’s, where he introduced his unique fusion of Asian, island and European flavors. For his efforts, in 1993 he won the first-ever James Beard Award given to a Hawaiian chef.
Today, Yamaguchi oversees an empire that includes 31 Roy’s restaurants, with locations throughout the U.S. and in Guam and Japan, as well as Eating House 1849, which is soon to open its third outpost in Hawaii. He’s also published four cookbooks, hosted six seasons of Hawaii Cooks with Roy Yamaguchi on PBS, competed in the first season of Top Chef Masters and co-founded the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival.
From a sophisticated whiskey tipple at a hip craft-cocktail joint to a shot and a beer at a neighborhood dive, here are Yamaguchi’s favorite drinks on the Big Island.
BLA Old Fashioned at Bar Leather Apron
Inspired by the great cocktails they’d enjoyed traveling the globe, last year Justin Park and Tom Park (they’re not actually related) opened this spot downtown. “Their Japanese-influenced whiskey cocktails are all beautifully done and prepared,” Yamaguchi says, none more so than the signature Old Fashioned, made with Bar Leather Apron’s own house barrel of Knob Creek Bourbon and wasanbon, a special type of unrefined sugar imported from Japan.
Negroni at House Without a Key
Part of the luxury Halekulani resort, House Without a Key is one of the spots Yamaguchi always takes visitors. On its massive beachside patio, under a century-old kiawe tree, you can enjoy live Hawaiian music and dancing every night, along with fresh local seafood and a locally famous Mai Tai. But Yamaguchi sticks to the simple and classic Negroni, which is a mix of gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari. “One of my favorite cocktails, before or after a meal,” he says.
Big Island Brewhaus Overboard IPA and Iichiko Blu Shochu at Side Street Inn
Japan has a huge influence on Hawaii’s food and drinks scene, so as a result the state is a big market for shochu. It’s a low-proof liquor that can be made from a wide variety of ingredients and is extremely popular in Japan. “Shochu is one of my favorite spirits, and Iichiko Blu was created specifically for Hawaii,” Yamaguchi says. It’s made from barley and is a bit higher-proof than typical shochu. At neighborhood favorite Side Street Inn, Yamaguchi orders a shot paired with the pleasantly bitter Overboard IPA brewed just across the Maui Channel, and an order of the pan-fried pork chops.