Back at the hotel, we reef walked out to Ke‘eku Heiau, which is being restored. © 2012 Sugar + Shake

The last thing we expected to find in Kona was a craft cocktail tiki bar, but that’s exactly what Okolemaluna Tiki Lounge is. Shake was searching online for places to eat and announced suddenly, “Hey, did you know that there’s a bar here that Imbibe says is one of the 10 Best Tiki Bars?”

It happens to be the only Hawai‘i spot on the list, too. We have a soft spot for La Mariana, but must admit their drinks aren’t anything unique. That’s definitely not the case with Okolemaluna’s drinks, created by bar owner Brice Ginardi.

With an impressive set of carved ki‘i (tiki) just outside our hotel, how could we pass up the chance to visit a good tiki bar?

Okolemaluna Tiki Lounge in Kona was named one of Imbibe Magazine’s 10 Best Tiki Bars. © 2012 Sugar + Shake

It took us two attempts to find the place; it’s tucked away in one of the mini-malls that line Kona’s main drag. For your reference, it’s in the Ali‘i Sunset Plaza, and NOT at the map location that comes up when you type the address into Google. Island Lava Java is probably the most prominent business you can see from the street. (You can’t see the bar from the street or the parking lot.)

Never mind how the place looks, the drinks are FABULOUS and the staff is friendly. Brice puts a lot of time and thought into creating his drinks, and really goes the extra mile in making his syrups from scratch: house-made falernum, fresh-squeezed liliko‘i juice. He doesn’t do the avant-garde fancy stuff — no foams or little smoker machines — he just concentrates on making really good tiki drinks.

Round One: A Wicked Wahine for me, and a Zombie for Shake.

First up for Sugar: a Wicked Wahine. Imbibe picked this recipe to publish in their story. © 2012 Sugar + Shake This is the Zombie Shake ordered. We were both surprised it came in this stylish glass instead of the standard pint glass. © 2012 Sugar + Shake

The Wahine was featured in Imbibe, and they published Brice’s recipe. Here’s the catch, though — every item in the recipe, with the exception of the rum and the bitters, is made in-house. So unless you’re nutty enough to make your own falernum and grenadine (and I do aspire to this level of insanity), yours won’t taste quite the same.

Shake’s Zombie was fantastic, and we were surprised when it was poured into this pretty glass instead of the usual rocks or pint glass. There are little anchor icons on the menu indicating drink strength. The Zombie has five anchors, and there’s a customer limit of two. But it’s not one of those “we’re just dumping everything we can into here for an ass-kicking buzz” kind of drinks. It’s a nicely balanced drink and tastes lovely.

Round Two: A Tropical Itch for Shake and a Hawaiian Eye for me.

Okolemaluna’s Tropical Itch (Shake’s second selection). No cheesy backscratcher here, just a pair of Luxardo cherries. © 2012 Sugar + Shake Sugar waffled between three choices and was finally sold on the Hawaiian Eye by owner Brice because of the house-made falernum. © 2012 Sugar + Shake

No cheesy backscratcher garnish in this Tropical Itch. Instead, you get a pair of Luxardo cherries. Yummy! And Brice was kind enough to slip us a few extra to snack on. In addition to being generous with the tasty garnish, he was also a treasure trove of advice on good places to eat in the area. Kona being…well, Kona, the dining options can be a little…touristy. Brice told us about a few spots that he thought we’d enjoy. One of his recommendations, Tracy’s Tasteeze Deli, was fantastic. A lot of the reviews grouse about the wait and the service, but we went after the lunch rush and had good service.

I was waffling between three different choices for my second drink: the Boo Loo, the Hawaiian Eye and the Mac Nut Chi Chi. I finally settled on the Hawaiian Eye because of the house-made falernum. Brice and I agreed that falernum’s not a taste for everyone, but because I love it, he thought I’d like this drink because it really showcased the spicy (as in spices, not hot-spicy) flavor. Yep. Tasty.

Completing the tiki theme for the day, we ventured out to Okolemaluna Tiki Lounge where we found INCREDIBLE craft cocktails. © 2012 Sugar + ShakeWhile we enjoyed our drinks, we had a great time chatting with Brice at the bar. He revealed that he’s entered the annual $10,000 prize “World’s Best Mai Tai” competition the past two years, but hasn’t yet won. And there’s no prize for second place — “$10K or tears, huh?” as I put it, to which he said, “Well, yeah…make it sound even more depressing, why don’t you?”

Personally, we think Brice’s drinks deserve to be award-winners, but since he doesn’t do the crazy, showy, out-of-the-box touches that other bartenders do, preferring to stick to crafting really well-made classic drinks, it’ll probably be an uphill battle for him. All the entrants in the contest make excellent drinks, so it’s pretty much a question of how do you distinguish your great job from someone else’s — you kind of have to pull out the bag of weird ingredients and fancy tricks.

We wish Brice all the best and the next time we’re in Kona, we’re stopping by!

UPDATE (9/3/12): We just learned that although Okolemaluna is still open, Brice is not there. If we find out more, I’ll post another update here.

UPDATE (Oct. 2012): Sad news — Okolemaluna has closed down.