POIPU — Exhilaration rushed through Nilo Badua like a buzz.
“Yay!” Badua bellowed, raising his hands in the air after he was announced the first-place winner in the inaugural Kauai Mai Tai Bartender’s Challenge Friday night at the Sheraton Kauai Resort.
Badua was quick to give a tip of the hat to his competition and friend, Duke’s bartender Alika Mayer. As the finalists of the monthslong competition, they spent nearly four hours mixing up their versions of mai tais for guests and four main judges at the resort’s restaurant and bar, RumFire.
“Alika is defiantly a competitor and a good bartender, so I’m very happy that we both went to the finals and I got the victory,” Badua said.
The drinks were scored on taste, balance and creativity. In the end, Badua notched 273 points while Mayer received 247 points.
By all accounts, it was close. After the guests voted, the scores were so tight that the judges had the two bartenders make a specialty drink with specific ingredients to settle the score.
When Poipu resident Beth Kauwe tried Mayer’s mai tai, she knew who she wanted to win.
“It’s got like a lavender and pineapple minty kind of flavor, it’s not too sweet,” she said. “It’s kind of all together, leveled out and balanced really well.”
But Lihue resident Jim Dennis had a different opinion: He found Badua’s beverage by far the best.
“It’s Kalapaki Joe’s, nice balance of flavors,” Dennis said. “No flavor overwhelms a flavor. It’s really nice.”
Badua said winning the competition means a lot to him, as he was inspired by his family who traveled from the Philippines to Hawaii to work for the sugarcane plantations.
“This mai tai competition goes way back and it’s for my family,” he said.
Badua called his drink the Plantation Mai Tai, and used Mount Gay Rum, lemongrass simple syrup, fresh lime juice, falernum, sugarcane juice, Whaler’s Rum, a sugarcane stick and lemongrass.
That edged out Mayer’s, which was called the Alii Mai Tai and includes Koloa Spiced Rum, Koloa Coconut Rum, homemade lavender falernum, caramelized pineapple puree, passion fruit, lime juice, Koloa Rum sorbet, pineapple and mint.
Although Alika was a little disappointed he didn’t win the challenge, he was still pleased by Badua’s victory.
“I had a blast, I enjoyed it,” he said. “I’m happy that Nilo won, he’s a good friend of mine so I’m happy. I think it was fair.”
The surprise challenge required the duo to create a different drink with three secret ingredients: fruit soursop, Hawaiian chili peppers and B&B liqueur (brandy and Benedictine).
Sponsored by Young’s Market Company and the Sheraton Kauai Resort, the final judges were Sheraton Kauai Resort Food and Beverage Manager Jacob Vogelgesang, Living Food’s Market General Manager Jondy Malone, The Feral Pig owner Dave Power and Young’s Market Company of Hawaii sales representative Valerie Rubio.
Badua tipped the scale in his favor after the judges sampled his version of a matador mojito. For their specialty drinks Mayer earned 50 points while Badua earned 70 points.
“Nilo’s started off really hot and really boozy but as the ice melted it started getting better,” Vogelgesang said.
Rubio and Vogelgesang said that another competition will take place next year and are considering a $5,000 prize. The fun competition ran over the course of a month on Fridays and the field started with 10 bartenders before the champion was crowned.
“We’re Hawaii, we’re this little island in the U.S., but there’s so much culture here on the island and that’s why we do events like this,” Rubio said, adding that the cocktails could show up on the local menu. “We want to highlight the talented people of the food and beverage industry.”
Badua, who entered the competition representing Kalapaki Joe’s but who now mixes drinks at Trees Lounge, hopes to continue bartending in the future and eventually own his own bar. But for now, he is looking forward to his prize: a two-night oceanfront stay in a suite at the Sheraton.
“My passion is making drinks,” Badua said.