Harry Yee, King of Tropical Cocktails

by Rick Carroll

With orchids, parasols and names like “Missionary’s Downfall,” the exotic drinks of Hawaii are the most unusual in the world. One man, Harry K. Yee, created 15 of them, including the Blue Hawaii, the Banana Daiquiri and Tropical Itch. He mixed ’em and named ’em, usually after one sip.

“A Hawaiian drink to me,” Yee said, “is something they don’t get back home.”

He invented the Blue Hawaii in 1957 in Waikiki because nobody knew what to do with blue liqueur. And it looked like Hawaii’s ocean. It was an instant classic.

The dean of Honolulu bartenders also:

  • Put the first Vanda orchid in a drink in 1955.
  • Dropped a Chinese back scratcher in a Tropical Itch in 1957, to create a hit drink and cottage industry in back scratchers.
  • Popped a tiny parasol in a Tapa Punch in 1959; the drink faded but the umbrella lives on.

Harry Yee traces the tropical drink craze to the early 1950s.

“Those days when tourists came in, they said, ‘Give me a Hawaiian drink,'” he said. “We didn’t have any Hawaiian drinks. There were no such things as exotic drinks. Or tropical drinks from Hawaii.”

“We had Planter’s Punch, Singapore Slings, Zombies, Grasshoppers and Pink Ladies, that was it.”

In the 1920s, he said, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel served rum or gin and pineapple juice cocktails, which they called The Kama’aina and The Princess Kaiulani.

“They weren’t exotic enough,” Yee said, “and never became a hit.”

Hawaii’s one, true drink-okolehao-which is made from ti root, was too strong for tourists, he said.

“So we started thinking, ‘Gee, we better start making something for the tourists-something catchy, not too strong and nice to sip. We wanted something real different, so first we took a hurricane glass…”

Yee, now 78, began mixing drinks in 1952, and served as Hilton Hawaiian Village’s head barman for 30 years. He figures he’s served more than one million Mai-Tais, which he didn’t invent.

But the Hawaiian Cooler, Guava Lada, Hot Buttered Okolehao and Scratch Me Lani are Harry’s. So are The Hukilau, Catamaran, Diamond Head and Hawaiian Eye. Naughty Hula, Wahine’s Delight and Hawaiian VillageSunset.

Not bad for a guy who doesn’t like rum.

The introduction of the Vanda orchid into the tropical cocktail, which ranks right up there with the olive in the martini, occurred one moonlit night in Waikiki in 1955, but it had nothing to do with romance.

“I was the first to use orchids,” Yee said. “You know why? We used to use a sugar cane stick and people would chew on the stick, then put it in the ashtray. When the ashes and cane stuck together it made a real mess so I put the orchids in the drink to make the ashtrays easier to clean. I wasn’t thinking about romance,” he said, “I was being practical.”

His most famous creation-the Blue Hawaii-remains one of the most requested drinks in Hawaii. It’s a smooth, refreshing tropical cocktail made of rum, vodka and fresh pineapple juice-and blue curacao, which gives it that authentic look of the islands.

His “Hawaiian Eye,” cocktail, featured in the 1950s television classic starring Jack Lord, also gained world-wide fame.

“People still see it in re-runs and write to Hollywood and say, ‘What is that drink they serve?'”

Exotic drinks now arrive in bright tropical colors in everything from ceramic bamboo glasses to real, hollowed out pineapples. They are garnished with orchids, parasols, back-scratchers and, most commonly, pineapple spears topped with red maraschino cherries.

“Drinks are sweeter, bigger, milder and more expensive,” he said. “A Mai Tai used to be $1.25, now they are over $6.”

Tropical drinks change over the years; the Mai Tai is a sticky sweet version of its original self because bartenders use a prepared mix with lots of sugar.

Too often, he said, bartenders substitute gin for vodka in a Blue Hawaii.

“Don’t be fooled,” Yee warned. “The Blue Hawaii has to have vodka to be correct. And Bols curacao, because the others I don’t care for.”

Upon retiring, Yee went back to school. As principal of Honolulu’s Bartender Training Institute, he taught students how to make the drinks he invented. Retired from teaching now, he is content to sip a cocktail at sunset himself. So what does the father of the Blue Hawaii drink?

“Cognac, straight,” Yee said. “Good cognac.”

The Original Blue Hawaii According to Harry K. Yee

In a 12 ounce glass, put ice, then add in this order:

  • three ozs. fresh pineapple juice,
  • one oz. sweet and sour
  • half oz. of blue curacao (preferably Bols).
  • ¾ oz. vodka
  • ¾ oz. Puerto Rican rum (“It’s a better taste,” Harry says.)

Stir gently, garnish with pineapple slice and vanda orchid. Serve with aloha.

So Who Made The Mai Tai?

The Mai Tai, bright as a tropical moon, smooth as summer surf, rich as old Lurline passengers, is one of Hawaii’s favorite tropical drinks. One sip and it’s paradise. The Mai Tai is Polynesian in origin-the word is Tahitian for good-although who exactly created the classic drink remains a great mystery.

The late Vic Bergeron, creator of Trader Vic’s restaurants, claimed he invented the drink in 1944 in Oakland, California.

“There’s been a lot of conversation over the beginning of the Mai Tai. And I want to get the record straight. I originated the Mai Tai. Many others have claimed credit. Some claim it originated in Tahiti. All this aggravates my ulcer completely. Anyone who says I didn’t create this drink is a dirty stinker.”

The late Don (Don The Beachcomber) Beach told me that he, not Trader Vic, invented the drink at his Hollywood establishment in 1932, but named it the QB Cooler after the QB Flight Squadron of World War II. Maybe so, but thje QB Cooler never attained legendary status. Since both Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic are gone I asked Harry Yee. He thinks Trader Vic invented the Mai Tai, and so do I.

About the Author
Rick Carroll is the author of numerous Hawaii books from The Bess Press including Great Outdoor Adventures of Hawaii and the best-selling anthology, Chicken Skin: True Spooky Stories of Hawaii. He is now editing Travelers’ Tales Hawaii, due in the Spring of 1999 from O’Reilly & Associates, San Francisco. A former San Francisco newspaperman, Carroll lives at Lanikai Beach, Hawaii, and still drinks dry martinis, up, with a twist.

Copyright Rick Carroll 1998. All rights reserved.