The enchantment and relaxing vibes of Hawaii can be felt even in Honolulu, the biggest city in the islands. Honolulu is located on the island of Oahu, which has a population of just under one million people. It’s easy to drive traffic-free roads through the middle of Oahu to the laid-back North Shore for surfing or to see the sugarcane fields owned by Kō Hana Distillery. But in the dense city of Honolulu, even when there is congestion — and there is increasingly more — the pace is still slower than the U.S. mainland. This city is the most exciting and option-packed place to eat and drink in all the islands, and aloha spirit is alive and well in the service at Honolulu’s restaurants and bars.
Hawaii became a U.S. state in 1959, but Honolulu has been Hawaii’s capital since 1845. The city’s population of just over 350,000 is roughly 53% Asian, 17% white, 8.4% Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander, and smaller percentages of other races. This large Asian American population means Oahu has a wealth of bars and restaurants serving Asian food, particularly Japanese, the largest Asian population on Oahu. Hawaiian cuisine itself is a unique mash-up of cultural influences, including Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Puerto Rican, and Portuguese. Not unlike Cajun or Creole cuisines in Louisiana, Hawaiian food is one of the U.S.’s greatest culinary gifts and a truly unique cuisine that exceeds the sum of its parts.
In years past, it could be tough to find drinks here that weren’t too sweet. But all that has changed. Honolulu bartenders are pushing forward to catch up to the cocktail renaissance of the past 30 years on the mainland and around the world. Today, Honolulu officially has a robust cocktail scene. Rum and mai tais still proliferate, but all spirits are now getting their due on cocktail menus.
As experimentation with tasting menus and local ingredients rises, newcomers like Bar Maze have opened. Launched in August 2021 by Tom and Justin Park of internationally acclaimed Bar Leather Apron, Bar Maze features exciting food from chef Ki Chung. Each course at Maze is paired with Justin’s impeccable, culinary-minded cocktails (think vodka fat-washed in coconut oil with Giffard pamplemousse, cucumber, green tea yogurt, and egg white).
Miro Kaimuki, from pioneering Hawaii chef Chris Kajioka and San Francisco’s Mourad Lahlou of Michelin-starred Mourad and Aziza, offers a more casual yet still refined tasting menu. While the drink pairing menu features wine, Michael Jensen’s balanced cocktails are a draw in drinks like the Pandan Express, featuring Irish gin and calamansi lime, or Absinthe of Breakfast, which includes amaro, amaretto, and absinthe.
Podmore can feel a bit stiff compared to both those spots, but it’s another example of a boundary-pushing bar going for London vibes (with London prices to match), artful drink presentations, and a sleek, elegant space in bar-lined, late night Chinatown. A few blocks away, Fête is a favorite restaurant from 2022 James Beard-winning chef Robynne Maii, with a tight natural wine list — rare in these parts — and easy drinking cocktails from Fabrice McCarthy. This is the yin to the neighborhood’s lively yang where historic Irish bar Murphy’s Bar & Grill, rooftop industry hangs like Tchin Tchin, or dives like Hank’s Cafe Honolulu bring the party.
Oahu is also home to several craft distilleries, most of which also draw on its unique combination of cultural influences. KōHana Distillery has been working to revive and distill traditional Hawaiian sugarcane varieties, and its collection of variety-specific agricole-style rums showcases a wide range of flavor profiles.
Shochu is a traditional Japanese beverage that starts with a starch, often rice, barley, or sweet potatoes. In the case of North Shore’s Hawaiian Shochu Company, Ken Hirata has been making small-batch shochu since 2013. In 2021, he debuted the North Shore’s first locally made gin with local botanicals like hibiscus and jabong. His shochus are distilled from a range of ingredients, such as local pineapple and sweet potatoes, and are available for purchase at the distillery.
Ko’olau Distillery on the windward side of Oahu sources local corn and water for their Old Pali Road whiskey and bourbon. Mānoa Honey & Mead’s Yuki Uzuhashi has been experimenting with fermented honey since 2014, harvesting raw Hawaiian honey from hives around Oahu and starting to brew mead in 2020. RHS Royal Hawaii Spirits makes everything from vodka and shochu to rum and bourbon, as well as local specialties like breadfruit spirit and “Aloha Spirit Liqueur-Lilikoi.” Kailua-based Lanikai Brewing Co. has been working on opening a distillery in Haleiwa on Oahu’s North Shore in addition to their breweries.
There is much to love in Hawaii’s best drinking city. Here are ten of its best bars, some showcasing different categories of spirits or cocktail styles with aloha welcome.
Bar Leather Apron
The only Hawaiian bar on The World’s 50 Best North American bars list, Bar Leather Apron is renowned for a reason. Since 2015, it has been home to Hawaii’s biggest whiskey selection as well as exquisite glassware and service from founders Justin Park and Tom Park and their team. The intimate, quiet space inside a highrise recalls Japan, but the relaxed vibes are sheer aloha. Bar bites by chef Colin Hazama are exceptional, whether you choose Nana’s Kim Chee Clam Dip scooped up with shrimp chips, or irresistible Maze Maui onion dip dotted with smoked trout roe.
What to Drink: Park and team’s cocktails are world class, with balanced creativity and Japanese glassware. They are also delicious, including the award-winning E Ho’o Pau Mai Tai (2015 World’s Best mai tai) down to its smoking tiki totem, or a simple but perfect Shiso Highball or Sancho-Yuzu Tonic. Many drinks have complex and fascinating twists, like an absinthe spritz elevated with coconut water, rose, and orange blossom orgeat, or a killer Red Shiso Smash of red miso and shiso-laced Nikka Taketsuru Whisky with yuzu, lemon, wasanbon Japanese sugar, and soda. www.barleatherapron.com
Hidden off a second-floor parking lot at 1680 Kapiolani Blvd., down a hallway by a comedy club, and behind a faux juice vending machine (a nickel is required to open the door), Wild Orange — which opened early spring 2022 — is not easy to find. But once you do, it’s one of Hawaii’s most exciting bars. Glowing black lights illuminate pulsating custom speakers, vintage game wall art, and a giant tree. A vegan menu filled with fun dishes like char siu tofu bao, kimchi potato salad, and a killer tomato poke that mimics tuna’s texture is one of many pleasant surprises in this gem of a bar.
What to Drink: Friendly bartenders — including a few of the city’s best female bartenders — turn out drinks like Atomic Blonde (Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, Strega, Lillet Blanc, Branca Menta) and Hold the Boba (salted black sesame-infused vodka, Earl Grey tea, velvet falernum, Coco Lopez coconut cream, and vegan cream).
Housed in a nondescript office building, Pre-Storage reminds me of Japan — with distinctly Hawaiian vibes. Blissfully off the beaten path, this karaoke joint has a tiny bar and private karaoke rooms for rent. For those in the know, this Japanese-owned treasure is also an oasis for fresh fruit sours, chu-his (shochu highballs), and service that recalls Japan — right down to being escorted out as you leave and handed water bottles for the road.
What to Drink: The salt lemon sour is a favorite for its salty-sour-sweet intensity, but each pureed fruit highball is refreshing and delightful, from a juicy banana sour to a balanced muscat grape sour. Snacks also please, like sweet potato chips for scooping up mascarpone, Japanese mentaiko (roe) spaghetti (add on uni/sea urchin) or takoyaki octopus balls. http://honolulu-aloha.com
Skull & Crown Trading Co.
Don’t call it a tiki bar, though tiki spirit reigns in the drink influence and escapist feel at reservations-only Chinatown bar Skull & Crown Trading Co. Founders Noa Laporga and Angelina Khan also run a special effects company called Black Box FX. They draw on their work in Hollywood and at Halloween events to bring a touch of the playful and macabre to Skull & Crown, including mermaids, pirates, nets, buoys, tiki sculptures, and vintage pineapple lamps. It’s as if Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean met the Haunted Mansion… with rum drinks. A light-and-fire-pit-strewn back patio with picnic tables and leafy plants is magical.
What to Drink: Noa’s cocktails are blessedly boozy and balanced, featuring local KōHana and Kuleana distilleries’ rums. The Taboo cocktail showcases Plantation OFTD and Kuleana’s Huihui rums with acid-adjusted lime, pineapple, ginger honey, lilikoi, and a touch of absinthe, while their house “Dagger Club Killa” barrel select of KoHana’s Kila Cask Strength Hawaiian Agricole rum will delight rum geeks neat or on a rock.
Pint + Jigger and Harry’s Hardware Emporium
Since moving to Honolulu from LA and opening Pint + Jigger in 2012, Dave Newman has become a Honolulu bar pioneer. He brought craft beer, an extensive whiskey selection, and a then impossible to find focus on whiskey cocktails to the islands. This year, with partners Hideo Simon (also of Heiho House) and Grant Yamato, they’ve opened a larger, sleeker, but still familiar Pint + Jigger inside the Ala Moana Hotel — with hidden speakeasy bar Harry’s Hardware Emporium upstairs. Chef Sean McMonigle turns out gratifying bar food like Frick’n Pickles (house-brined fried pickles with Sriracha aioli) and fresh corn salsa/salad laced with applewood-smoked bacon, cherry tomatoes, bell pepper, and jalapeno.
What to Drink: Harry’s is upstairs behind a book-and-bottle-lined door. The space is seductive, Old World, and intimate, graced with jazz and vintage glassware. Lofty Pint+Jigger is more festive, lined with barrels Newman hand-picked in Kentucky and beyond. Catch Her in the Rye is a refreshing and spirituous cocktail featuring rye whiskey, a touch of Campari, house hibiscus simple syrup, fresh lime, yuzu, and Regan’s Orange Bitters, spritzed with a mist of 100th anniversary Grand Marnier and an orange twist.
Striking Heiho House from Thomas Ray and Hideo Simon is reimagined Japan, with a center bar and izakaya tables illuminated by dozens of handcrafted lanterns. Marked only by a red square on a 1970s-ish office building, Heiho feels like a hidden gem in Honolulu’s hip Kaimuki neighborhood. Chef Aaron Lopez hails from Los Angeles greats Redbird and Orsa & Winston, here cooking a creative tasting menu and bar snacks.
What to Drink: Gabriel Keller’s cocktails are some of the most creative culinary cocktails in Honolulu. Truffle Thief, a bourbon/Chartreuse drink, is laced with cacao and shiitake mushrooms. Doctor’s Orders is a riff on a Sazerac via an absinthe fountain with pine needle-infused cotton candy standing in for a sugarcube, over which is poured rye whiskey, Cognac Park VS Carte Blanche, genepy, and absinthe. Oaxaca to Osaka was the most exciting and fully realized cocktail of the ones I tasted, with the happy combo of mezcal, sweet corn, and Ancho Reyes verde touched with takuan (pickled daikon radish).
Beachfront seats at retro-fabulous 1963 Kaimana hotel make open-air restaurant and bar Hau Tree a beachside Honolulu haven outside Waikiki for chill food and drink. Savor salmon, herbed cream cheese, and trout roe over local Breadshop rye bread or ahi tuna tataki in pineapple relish while lingering under umbrellas on the patio or along the bar counter.
What to Drink: A “rosé all day” section of global rosés is a fun choice on the drink side, but bar manager Jen Ackrill’s cocktails are a draw with local expressions like Kaua’i Salted Espresso Martinis or an homage to San Francisco’s legendary Buena Vista Irish Coffee with Kona Coffee. Chichi Verde was a recent cocktail standout featuring vodka, pineapple, Coco Lopez coconut cream, lime, Ancho Verde, Midori, and a touch of KoHana Kea agricole rum for local, grassy-good funk.
Drinking in swings around a circular poolside bamboo bar? You can do it at fabulously retro (and recently restored) 1957 White Sands Hotel’s Heyday bar. The low-key-hipster hotel is centered around a pool that looks like it came straight out of Elvis’s Blue Hawaii or a Dean Martin/Matt Helm film. Once you settle onto your swing, expect balanced tropical cocktails (read: not too sweet) from beverage director Justin Whiting.
What to Drink: Alongside local Hana Koa beers on draft and piña colada slushies, sip a Daq-a-oui: KoHana Hawaiian Agricole rum, pastis, Yellow Chartreuse, and lime served in a Nick and Nora glass; or a Zicatela Lifeguard, a tequila/mezcal delight mixed with fresh orange and pineapple juices and Coco Lopez lightened up with a habanero infusion and topped with fresh grated nutmeg.
Mezzanine at Hana Koa Brewing Co.
Head upstairs in the lofty Hana Koa Brewing Co. brewery (a worthwhile beer stop) and you’ll find a casually “hidden” cocktail bar dubbed Mezzanine at Hana Koa. Bar manager Curtis Daulerio bartended at pioneering Honolulu bars like Pint + Jigger and Town for years, which shows on his “something for everyone” rotating cocktail menu.
What to Drink: Drinks are ever changing, but Dr. Claw remains one of Daulerio’s longtime go-tos. It’s one pleasing savory-vegetal-tart sipper, with cucumber and green onion-infused vodka bright with lemon, apple, and simple syrup. Though Sweater Weather feels out of place in balmy Hawaii, this fall-to-winter vibes cocktail still drinks refreshing thanks to a seamless mix of rye whiskey infused with roasted butternut squash, Demerara simple syrup, and bitters. www.hanakoabrewing.com
Brick Fire Kitchen
As Honolulu’s only Vera Pizza Napoletana-certified spot, Brick Fire Kitchen serves the best Neapolitan pizzas on the island, especially Da “Shrimp Truck,” a blissfully garlicky ode to Oahu’s famous North Shore shrimp trucks. Their humble bar is also a rare and unexpected source for Italian amari (bitter liqueurs) in Honolulu and nicely balanced cocktails.
What to Drink: On the changing cocktail menu, Sacred Ground is a refresher of KoHana Hawaiian Agricole rum, Amaro Nonino, Branca Menta, Chareau aloe liqueur, watermelon, and lime, tasting like sweet summer with grassy, minty, and herbaceous undercurrents. Galdius is a vibrant sipper of Braulio Amaro, white rum, pineapple balsamic shrub, falernum, and tiki bitters. www.brickfiretavern.com