Maybe it’s a coincidence that a man named Orion who was looking for a job found the stars aligned for a match made in heaven. Or a twist of fate which landed that man born and raised in Maui behind the bar… at Huli Sue’s BBQ & Grill, a position he applied for with no idea it was an Hawaiian restaurant.

Orion Milligan — his siblings are Sunny, Luna, and Clay — was born and raised in Hawaii, where his father was an opening bartender at the Hard Rock Café in Maui. As a kid, he often visited his dad there, but his first official restaurant job was line cook at a vegetarian restaurant.  His next position in an Italian restaurant took himto the front of house where his personal love for hospitality found a profession.

“I am a very social, extroverted person and have always enjoyed interacting with people,” he says. “I like hosting in my own home, and I feel like at work, behind the bar, I’m hosting people there. People come in to eat and drink and connect with other people, and I love facilitating that.”

Milligan met his future wife, Katie, in Hawaii when she extended a three-month visit with her brother to six years. Though to her — and thousands of people who also vacation in Hawaii every year — the islands were paradise found, Milligan was feeling a little confined. “Growing up on an island is similar to growing up in a small town,” he explains. “It’s also hard to travel from there. Anywhere you want to go, you have to tack on an extra six hours just to get across the ocean. I had never lived anywhere else, and I was ready for a change.”

Katie’s father lived in Asheville and the couple had visited several times. They wanted to settle somewhere they had some family, and Asheville checked several boxes. “It had this laid-back, funky, hippie, artsy vibe to it that reminded me of this hippie-surfer town, Paia, on Maui, but bigger. Paia is beach and Asheville is mountain, but they both are nature-heavy and beautiful.”

A search of online listings for bartender positions in Asheville led to a Zoom interview with Lisa Vann, who opened Huli Sue’s with partner Ben Krueger in the Grove Arcade in December 2021. Milligan was not familiar with the original Huli Sue’s in Waimea on the Big Island or that it was a Hawaiian-themed restaurant. “She told me they were a Texas barbecue/Hawaiian concept, and I was like, no way, I’m in Maui! I told her where I had worked on Maui, and that was pretty much it. I had a job when I got here.”

Milligan arrived about six months after Huli Sue’s opened and found a beverage program in need of his experience and expertise. “Tropical flavors and tropical drinks are hard,” he says. “They really have to be balanced, or they end up too sweet or too boozy. A lot of people take an existing cocktail and throw some kind of tropical thing in it, and it doesn’t work. If you want to create a full tropical cocktail menu, you want to balance everything so each drink is its own thing.”

Though Milligan — now head bartender — says he can and will make any drink ordered from martini to Manhattan, Huli Sue’s offers a dozen tropical cocktails on its Paradise Found beverage menu. Of those, the mai tai is his favorite, in part because of what it evokes for him.
“There was a restaurant in Maui that did a mai tai with passionfruit foam that is so good and I was really missing it. So, I recreated it with my own spin with a macadamia nut orgeat [rather than almond] and a lilikoi foam,” he says. He also uses lilikoi — a tropical fruit — for his interpretation of a mule, which he mixes with local Cultivated Cocktails Asheville vodka.

Milligan weighs in on the popularity of tiki bars. “I would never call myself a tiki bartender. I’m more of a Hawaiian tropical bartender. There are people who consider themselves tiki snobs or tiki purists; it’s really based on each person and is a very subjective term.”

Huli Sue’s tiki sour is a riff on a classic whiskey sour for which he subs out the simple syrup and uses macadamia orgeat, orange curacao, and a little bit of maraschino liqueur. Milligan cuts all his own fruits; juices all his citrus; makes the orgeat, syrups, shrubs — including passionfruit — and sweet-and-sour. 

“The only thing I don’t make in house is the Coco Lopez,” he says. “It’s just a superior product to what I can make myself.” He uses that in frozen drinks the Lava Flow and coconut-kaffir lime daiquiri.

Three tropical mocktails are on the menu, he says, because “no one should have to stand in a bar with a club soda in their hand while their friends are having fun cocktails.”

For more on Huli Sue’s BBQ & Grill, visit hulisuesbbq.com

Written by Kay West