The Weekly Mix: Hawaii’s Next (Mixo) Generation at Town

by Emily Bell
Will Blunt Nicholas Rummell
October 2012



Kyle’s Fun Facts

Local Product:
A lot of the ingredients you can find on the mainland in specialty grocers at the right time of year: lilikoi, lychee, mango, kiawe wood, tahitian lime, fresh pressed sugar cane juice. I know that much of that is available, but we are fortunate to have most of those ingredients year round. That certainly makes us lucky.

Favorite Cocktail:
The Daiquiri. It's perfect. I make mine the way Simon Difford does; much more spirit forward—2 ½ ounces rum, ¾ ounce lime juice, ½ ounce simple syrup.

Guilty Pleasure:
I'm not ashamed to admit it but more frequently than not you'll see me enjoying a Coor's Original. It's refreshing and low in flavor. After a long shift you'd be hard pressed to get me the enjoy something more.

Ask anyone walking out of M&M’s World in Times Square with a half-pound of plain and no idea how they got there: tourism is guaranteed spending, with a chance of service. It’s a global truth, and just as valid in the cocktail bars of vacation mecca Hawaii, where the already compromised logic of tourism is further disoriented by alcohol and decorative exotica. “If a bartender knows he is only going to see a guest once or twice ever, there isn’t much incentive to give great service,” says Mixologist Kyle Reutner of Honolulu’s Town, a decidedly un-tourist-trap of a place. Combine that with an import-based pantry and a penchant for stale menus—“no one changes their drink menu, even seasonally”—and you’ve got potential for hospitality fossilization.

Fortunately (for cocktail evolution, anyway) there are guys like Reutner, part of a contingent of bartenders abandoning the hyper-garnished “Waikiki and umbrella drinks” of yore for something pared down and craft-oriented. “I don’t think it’s a struggle against tourism,” says Reutner. “That’s the bread and butter out here. I do, however, think that tourism has made our local bar community complacent.” Reutner’s anything but. He mixes drinks like the Devil You Know, which lengthens mezcal (a rare sight Hawaii) with amaro-tinged soda, and his vermouth-laced Pa, a Campari aperitivo laced with local grapefruit, Dolin Blanc, and Big Island sugar cane.

Get Started with the Pa Cocktail at Town
Get Started with the Pa Cocktail at Town

Reutner’s careful to note that even an ever-so-slightly complacent local bar community has been essential to advancing island potables. “There are so many [people] that have tended bar out here for 20-plus years, people that have considered bartending a profession all their lives,” he says (suggesting why Hawaii, while behind mainland cocktail scenes, isn’t really that behind). And while “unfortunately, that means mostly sour mix, poorly thought out recipes, and never a bit of fresh anything,” it also means that Reutner can stand on the shoulders of an established market as he reaches for, say, Chartreuse.

Which he’s doing, with a few constraints. As mixologist at Chef Ed Kenney’s sophisticated Honolulu mainstay, Reutner knows he has to make his drinks food-friendly. “It’s a major reason why I love vermouth, Sherry, and bitters. They all get me so much without blowing out the food.” But Reutner’s also got a mixologist’s lust for liquid flavor, and he’s finding ways to have his cake (or whiskey) and eat it, too. “Recently, I’ve been getting into working much larger flavors into more refreshing drinks,” he says. “I’ve started incorporating Chartreuse, heavily peated Scotch, mezcal, and others into drinks that still work with food,” upping the acid or stretching the spirit for lower alcohol content and less palate fatigue. “It’s amazing how using such a small amount can push your cocktail into a really interesting place.”

As for pushing Hawaiian cocktails into a really interesting place, Reutner’s Pa (which, appropriately, means “to start”) earned him a 5,600 mile trip to New York as a finalist in the 2012 Campari Challenge. And his seasonally rotating drinks list continues to pleasantly defy tourist expectations at Town. “I see it as an honor when people from out of town are stoked to have a real cocktail, rather than 'fortified juice,'” he says. Reutner sees big things on the island horizons. “I’d define our bar scene as searching …we don’t have an identity yet,” he says. But with a young talent on the prowl, weather to attract the masses (“I wouldn’t trade that for a million hot toddies”), and a wealth of year-round product, it looks like the Hawaiian cocktail scene will continue evolving. We'll say aloha (as in hello) to that.