A successful tropical cocktail can have a million mothers. Take the mai tai. Vic Bergeron—the Vic of Trader Vic’s, the kitschy restaurant chain that helped popularize an imaginary rendering of Polynesian culture for wistful mainlanders—asserted that he had invented the rum drink. Any suggestion otherwise, Bergeron said, aggravated his ulcer, adding, “Anybody who says I didn’t create this drink is a dirty stinker.” On the opposing court, we have the tiki-bar progenitor Don the Beachcomber, who was born Ernest Gantt, but was so infatuated by his Don the Beachcomber persona that he legally changed his name to Donn Beach. Beach claimed that the mai tai was his brainstorm. We may never truly know who to thank/blame for the mai tai, especially since recipes can’t be copyrighted, and, in the mid-nineteen-forties, when it first appeared on bar menus, there was such a rage for anything that signalled the fantasy version of island culture (including cocktail glasses adorned with sacred cultural symbols) that bartenders all over were probably sloshing together rum and lime and coconut to catch the wave.
On the other hand, it is an uncontested fact that, in 1957, Harry Yee (1918-2022) created the Blue Hawaii (rum, vodka, blue curaçao, pineapple juice, and sweet-and-sour mix). Yee was tending bar at the Hawaiian Village, one of the largest hotels in the United States outside of Las Vegas. The Hawaiian Village, which had begun as a small collection of low-rise tourist huts, had been expanding to accommodate the new swell of tourism that was under way. At the time, it could still be a slog to get to Hawaii, but Americans were determined to see the paradise that servicemen returning from the South Pacific had raved about, and they wanted sweet, sultry cocktails to accompany the experience.
Yee’s parents were from China, and he was born and raised in Honolulu. He was small and bespectacled and had a shy smile. His father owned a general store in downtown Honolulu. After high school, Yee attended aviation school in San Francisco, and then served as a fighter pilot in the Chinese Air Force, under Chiang Kai-shek, during the Second World War. He returned to Honolulu after the war, and for a few years he worked at his family’s store. He also began helping a friend who ran a bar that was popular with servicemen, and simply never stopped. It was an interestingly contrarian choice of professions for someone who drank very little, and then only cognac, but Yee took to it right away. His style was more business-y than schmoozy. “He wasn’t the jolly guy with wisecracks behind the bar,” Rick Carroll, a former reporter for the Honolulu Advertiser, who wrote about Yee in 1984, said. “He was keen and bright but serious. I never heard him laugh.” After the stint at his friend’s bar, Yee spent a few years at Trader Vic’s, where he learned how to mix tropical drinks, layering multiple liquors and liqueurs and juices. Then it was on to the Hilton, which, in addition to being huge, was glamorous; celebrities dined there regularly.
Unlike, say, a bar in New York City, where a dry Martini might satisfy customers until the end of time, bars in Hawaii, especially during the late fifties, were besieged by tourists who wanted drinks that were novel and “Hawaiian” (a prima-facie fallacy, because the Indigenous people of the South Pacific didn’t use much alcohol). Yee recalled being asked regularly for a local cocktail, which didn’t exist. He filled in the gap with mai tais, telling one reporter, “We served them as fast as we could make them.” Around that time,, the Dutch liquor company Bols was in the midst of promoting Blue Curaçao, its orange liqueur, and the local Bols rep urged Yee to see if he could come up with something tasty using it. Presto, the Blue Hawaii. (Contrary to the common assumption that the drink was named for the Elvis Presley movie, Yee evidently took the name from a 1937 Bing Crosby movie, “Waikiki Wedding,” which includes the original version of the song “Blue Hawaii.”) The drink was a hit. Inspired, Yee went on to invent close to twenty more cocktails, including Tapa Punch, Chimp in Orbit, Tropical Itch, the Hawaiian Eye, the Naughty Hula, the Scratch Me Lani, Wahine’s Delight, and the Hot Buttered Okolehao.
The usual garnish for these sugary drinks was a stalk of sugarcane, but Yee’s daughter Marilyn told me that her father was distressed by how messy and sticky it was, especially because bar patrons had a habit of putting their chewed-up sugarcane in the ashtrays. His first inspiration for upping his garnish game was to embellish his cocktails with a vanda orchid. People loved it. For his Tropical Itch, he sourced fourteen-inch-long bamboo back scratchers and stuck one in each drink—hence, a garnish/souvenir. (For the record, a bartender in Puerto Rico has claimed that he started using back scratchers in a similar cocktail around the same time.) Yee also started decorating some of his cocktails with tiny paper parasols, a novelty item that was introduced in the United States in 1893, with the Chinese village at the World’s Columbian Exposition, in Chicago. (According to Imbibe Magazine, the miniature parasols were the center of a miniature controversy: they were the subject of a court case in the eighteen-nineties arguing whether they should be subject to the same import duties as actual umbrellas, even though they were approximately three inches long and made of toothpicks and tissue paper. The court ruled that they should not be taxed as umbrellas, as they didn’t seem to function as rain protection.) Was Yee the very first human on planet Earth to put a little umbrella in a drink? It’s impossible to know, but he was celebrated for it, and solidified the concept of the umbrella drink in popular culture for all time.
Yee tended bar at the Hilton for decades, retiring when he was in his late seventies. He taught at the Bartending Training Institute in Honolulu for several years after that. The rewards for inventing drinks aren’t always lavish (apparently, all the Hilton bartender credited with inventing the now ubiquitous Piña Colada got was a medal, a diploma, and a television set), but Yee was proud of his boozy legacy. “He was a modest person,” Jeff (Beachbum) Berry, who writes about tropical drinks, said recently. “He never imagined his drinks would still be enjoyed.” Berry paused and added, “The thing about drinks in Hawaii is they don’t have to be good. After all, you’re in Hawaii—nothing else matters.” ♦