ac wailea kai bar

KAI bar at the AC Wailea offers the ultimate island setting for sipping a gin and tonic. (Photo: Marriott International)

Hawaii

G&T Lovers, Take Note: This Maui Bar is a Haven for Gin Lovers in Hawaii

Sipping an ice-cold gin and tonic while lounging poolside in Hawaii is a refreshing scenario, made even more delightful of late thanks to a slew of locally distilled gins cropping up across the islands. And while Hawaiian-made gins may be a relatively contemporary phenomena, the evolution of the original G&T dates back more than a century.

As the story goes, the drink was created rather unexpectedly. To make quaffing the antimalarial compound quinine a more palatable experience for British soldiers and officers during their occupation of the Indian subcontinent, they would combine their daily quinine dose with water and sugar, in a concoction that became known as “Indian Tonic Water.”

The soldiers and officials were also given a daily gin ration, which they then mixed into their “tonic” — because, really, why not? And so the gin and tonic was born.

Today, distilling gin and creating tonics are true art forms, resulting in heady, aromatic cocktails that elevate the standard G&T to a whole new level. With that in mind — and with a burgeoning interest in locally distilled gin bubbling up across the islands — Hawaiian bars like KAI in the AC Hotel by Marriott Maui Wailea have embraced the spirit.

tropical cocktails
KAI features cocktails with a distinctly Hawaiian twist. (Photo: Marriott International)

In an interview with Marriott Bonvoy Traveler, Kalani Hi’ilei, the restaurant manager at KAI, talks G&Ts and shares some of their island-inspired cocktails showcasing the best of Hawaii’s local flavors — including the bar’s Maui G&T, a gin-based cocktail that fuses sweet local sugar cane and vibrant kiwi and sips like a summer escape.

Can you tell us about some of the signature cocktails featured at Kai?

The Maui G&T, Kai Tai and Kai Bar Qi are some of our popular signature cocktails. The Maui G&T is made with organic Fy Gin from Ocean Vodka, which is a bit sweeter than your typical gin, as it’s made with local grown Maui cane sugar.

It has a nice, full body, so we’ve paired it with fresh kiwi nectar to balance out the sweetness and topped it with yuzu Choya soda, elderflower tonic and fresh thyme.

The Kai Tai is our take on the classic mai tai cocktail. We use Kula dark rum, macadamia nut orgeat, mandarin juice and lime, served over shaved ice.

And our Kai Bar Qi blends Kuleana Rum from the Big Island with crème de banana liqueur and lime juice, which is a nice, light drink to have poolside.

Those cocktails sound so refreshing! Speaking of gin, you mentioned Ocean Vodka’s new Fy Gin — how would you describe it?

It’s not your typical gin as it’s definitely sweeter, but a lot of gin lovers are starting to switch to it because it has great floral body and acidity to it. It pairs well with citrus and bitter tastes and is really well-balanced because of the botanicals they use — sugar cane, lime, juniper, lavender and ginger.

Personally, I’m a whiskey drinker and found that gin can sometimes have a medicinal element to it because of botanicals like juniper berries. It takes you back to the nostalgic days of taking cherry medicine as a kid. With Fy Gin, however, it’s sweeter because of the cane sugar and pairs really well with kiwi, which has a unique taste as well.

kalani hi'ilei serving a drink at the bar
Savor the complexities of the Maui G&T. (Photo: Marriott International)

Do you have any favorite local ingredients or garnishes that pair well with gin?

The elderflower tonic is really nice to keep those floral textures of the gin. To me, the garnishes depend on the base of your cocktail, so for the Maui G&T, we garnish it with a slice of kiwi and sprig of fresh thyme to give it a nice visual as well as let you see what’s in it — it’s a nice way to finish off the drink.

What other popular cocktails have been requested by gin lovers at Kai?

The avid gin lover will often go with standards they are familiar with and request a gin and tonic using Hendricks or Bombay. We’ve been noticing lately that they’ll often start with that because that’s what they know and love, but after talking to our bartenders they’ll try a new one like the Fy Gin, which we’ve turned a lot of people on to. We’ve also gotten requests for a Tom Collins and gin martinis.

How would you describe the ambience you have created at KAI?

We’re definitely focusing on the local vibe of the space and highlighting a lot of Maui products. We feature local companies, like Maui Brewing Company beers, Ocean Organic Vodka and Haliʻimaile Distilling spirits here at KAI, which gives our bartenders a talking point, as well as offers our guests ideas of what to do while on the island.

It’s nice to be able to recommend the Maui Brewing Company brewery or the Haliʻimaile Distilling tours to guests as suggestions of activities to do while they’re here on Maui, while also supporting other local businesses.

Do you have any other local liquors you are loving?

I was fortunate enough to also taste another up-and-coming gin made by Maui Brewing Company in their line of Kupu Spirits. Again, they’re using local ingredients, so they’re using Maui cane sugar, as well as incorporating hibiscus into their gin.

We’re looking into … creating another take on the gin and tonic cocktail by making a Wailea G&T using their hibiscus gin! It’s a really smooth gin that anybody can drink.

ac wailea fire pits and infinity pool
Enjoy your drink while getting cozy by the firepit. (Photo: Marriott International)

That sounds like a perfect summer cocktail. What would you recommend as a pūpū to enjoy with a cocktail like that?

Our Kai sliders are our number-one seller and pair really well with our Maui G&T or any cocktail at the bar. It’s created with Maui Cattle Company beef in our own unique blend, as well as our sweet Maui onions.

They come with french fries that you can order traditionally or our island-style furikake french fries made with savory furikake, Parmesan and a garlic aioli. They’re great to share with friends or even as a meal by yourself.

It seems like you’ve had an incredibly busy few months. What are you looking forward to next?

I can’t wait for whale season! We have an amazing infinity-edged pool that has breathtaking panoramic views of the island. When the whales come [November through May], I’m sure everybody will be sitting at the pool with a cocktail just watching the whales.