Drink Local Guide: Where to Get Locally Crafted Spirits in Hawai‘i
Just about every kind of spirit, from rhum agricole to traditional shochu, can be found crafted in the islands.
BACKGROUND DESIGN AND ILLUSTRATIONS: KIM SIELBECK; PHOTO: STEVE CZERNIAK
When it comes to Rum in Hawai‘i, it’s all about the sugar. While 99 percent of rum manufacturers will turn to molasses to ferment and distill the tropical spirit, Island rum makers are able to go straight to a local source for sweetness: sugar cane.
In Kalāheo on Kaua‘i, the Kōloa Rum Co. has been making single-batch craft distilled rum since 2009, using a vintage, refurbished 1,210-gallon copper-pot still built in Philadelphia in 1947. The process creates Kōloa’s premium rums: white, with flavors of marzipan and ginger; gold, which smells of butter toffee and tastes of caramel; and dark, with a robust presence of espresso and semisweet chocolate.
At Manulele Distillers in Kunia, you can watch the entire process of rhum agricole, a French Caribbean method of using fresh sugar cane juice for fermentation. By using straight cane juice, there’s no processing of sugar or use of byproducts to affect the taste before fermentation.
And the sugar cane itself is special; Manulele owner and founder Robert Dawson teamed up with Noa Lincoln, a Ph.D. specialist in biogeochemistry and archaeology of traditional farming methods, to identify and use only the original heirloom sugar cane varieties that the first Polynesian voyagers brought with them on canoes to the Hawaiian Islands. “They cut samples from botanical gardens, from people from their backyard collections of sugar cane, connected with the Hawai‘i Agriculture Research Center and went island to island, plot to plot, for these ancient varieties,” says Kō Hana brand manager Kyle Reutner. “So not only is it a delicious and really unique product, but there’s also incredible history inside this rum.”
At Manulele Distillers, juicing, fermentation, distillation, bottling and sales all happen on the premises. It allows the company to create more local jobs within the organization, and everyone from the distiller to the farm manager to the sales lead can be on the same page in terms of providing the best product possible.
If everything happens perfectly, Kō Hana moves from what Reutner calls “grass to glass” in exactly 15 months, three weeks and three days. “Even our white spirits, we rest them in stainless steel for three months just for their flavors to be a little more harmonious,” Reutner says. “With fermentations, we allow our yeast to be on its own, so it can have as much time with the sugar cane juice as it can and make the best flavors possible. And it all ends up paying off.”
In the late 19th century, sailors coming off the ships in Honolulu Harbor went drinking in Chinatown. A particularly large number of taverns, boarding houses and grog shops were located at the lower section of Nu‘uanu Avenue, which the sailors nicknamed “Fid Street”—fid being a tool used to hold open or separate knots on a boat for splicing, which doubled as their word for a drink. Calling it Fid Street “was their way of saying, more or less, we’re going to get our drink on,” says Ryan Mabbutt, quality assurance technician and distiller for the Hali‘imaile Distilling Co. “So when we were creating Fid Street Gin, we wanted to incorporate that spirit of an old-world-style gin with Hawai‘i and its history.”
Close to two years ago, Mabbutt had begun working at Hali‘imaile, known for producing Pau Maui Vodka, Paniolo Whiskey and other local spirits. He and fellow distiller Cory Nigbur were passionate gin drinkers and the duo decided to develop a gin in house. It took six months to develop the concept and recipe using a special botanical blend of juniper, coriander and various other seeds and herbs they liked, such as cedar tips, to give a forestlike flavor, and lavender from Ali‘i Kula Lavender on Maui. Mabbutt and Nigbur steep the botanicals in specially designed glass stills for 24 hours prior to distillation, to saturate the flavors.
“We’ve had really good feedback both in the distillery and on the market. It’s craft distilled so we’re only doing these in small batches,” says Mabbutt. “We sell probably 60 to 80 cases a month of the gin. People try it, love it, order and reorder.”
According to Mabbutt, with quality gin, the flavor is key: how pronounced the botanicals are, either on the nose or palate. In some gins, all the herbs blend together and become indistinguishable. Or one flavor overpowers the other so all you get is a strong taste of citrus or coriander. “I feel like a good gin will showcase as many of the ingredients as possible,” Mabbutt says. “And that’s what we try to do with Fid Street Gin, to strike a really good balance.”
Like the first longhorn cattle that arrived in Hawai‘i as a gift from Capt. George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy to King Kamehameha I in 1794 and propagated, so does Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey arrive from the Mainland before being blended with locally made Maui Gold pineapple distillate at the Hali‘imaile Distilling Co. It’s called “Island Rested” Paniolo Whiskey, as a tribute to the Hawaiian paniolo cowboys that emerged to wrangle and handle the wild cows that had soon multiplied by the thousands.
“We don’t distill the whiskey here but we add the pineapple distillate and age it here,” says Hali‘imaile’s Ryan Mabbutt. “It comes in from Kentucky aged at about three years and we might age it anywhere from a year and a half to three years or longer. Depending on however long our master distiller, Mark Nigbur, feels is right.”
The Maui Gold pineapple distillate is the same one used in Hali‘imaile’s award-winning spirit Pau Maui Vodka. The result is a blended, 40-proof bourbon with hints of brown sugar, vanilla and pineapple. Good for sipping, perfect mixer for cocktails and a unique gift to take to friends on the Mainland.
Vodka has proven to be an especially fertile ground for distillers looking to make spirits from locally grown ingredients. The secret lies in the classification: almost any base material can be used as long as it gets distilled to a high enough proof and flavorless composition (really, that’s the legal definition)—so distillers can get quite creative about the process.
More than a decade ago, Maui’s Ocean Vodka retooled its formula from an imported all-grain base to organically grown sugar cane in an effort to use local materials. At the property on the slopes of Haleakalā, the 80-acre working farm is slowly being planted with sugar cane, and there’s also a cute “martini” garden with flavored herbs that visitors can tour. (The company also makes a rum.)
Pau Maui Vodka, made by Hali‘imaile Distilling Co., takes a different tack by using Maui Gold pineapples. The sugar from the fresh fruit gets distilled into a mellow, smooth vodka ideal for making mixed drinks.
In the four years since he produced his first handcrafted batch of Hawaiian Shochu, the world has beaten a path to the screen door of Ken Hirata’s distillery in Hale‘iwa. The Japanese spirit that expresses the terroir of Hawai‘i through its Okinawan sweet potatoes caught the attention of local restaurants and izakayas, then aficionados who made the trek to the North Shore, then airline magazines, Japanese travel and luxury publications, and American industry magazines that include Artisan Spirit and Distiller.
Hirata, a wild-haired surfer who trained in his native Japan under an acclaimed shochu master, says only that the world has been kind. But Hawaiian Shochu won praise from the start. The spirit is rich, lightly sweet and elegant, with a finish that can range from caramel to dry. Each batch is subtly different because of Hirata’s continuing experiments with Okinawan sweet potatoes from locales throughout the Islands. Batch No. 1 came from the Hāmākua Coast, Mililani and Waialua; No. 7 from the field behind the distillery. No. 9, due for release this month, is a blend from Hāmākua and Līhu‘e. “Even though they are the same variety, if the growing site changes, it influences the flavor because the conditions of soil and climate change,” Hirata says. “It’s just like grapes or rice.”
That every batch of Hawaiian Shochu has sold out does not change the fact that, after steaming rice, cultivating koji rice around the clock, adding it to steamed sweet potatoes, tending the mash, distilling it through a cypress still and leaving it to round and mature, Hirata and his wife, Yumiko, can make only two batches a year. What has changed is now there’s a second, smaller tank that holds an undiluted, cask-strength shochu called Banzai. Where the alcohol content of Hawaiian Shochu is 30 percent, that of Banzai ranges up to 47 percent. It’s a small holiday release, limited to even fewer bottles than the 6,000 yearly of Hawaiian Shochu.
Hawaiian Shochu’s Ken Hirata
Photo: Odeelo Dayondon
Those beating a path to Hirata’s door shake out to about 50 percent local, 40 percent from Japan, and the rest from the Mainland and other countries. It pains him that, when he sells out, he has to close the gate to his dirt road. “I cannot ask my wife to work harder,” he says mournfully. “I think she will leave me.”
Billed as the first hard cider company in Hawai‘i, Paradise Ciders is new but quickly making a name in the local spirit scene. Founders and brewers Shaun Peck and Kasey Sulheim were bartenders at Yard House when they saw the customer demand for a local cider. Using money they earned from bar tips, they opened a small manufacturing warehouse in Kalihi. Their ciders include the Lei’d Back Liliko‘i, semisweet with a tart finish; and Kickit Ginger, made with local pineapple, ginger and citrus.
“For me, it’s nostalgia: I grew up drinking Hawaiian Sun juices and I wanted to create those flavors using local fruit,” Peck says. See if he captured the flavor next time you’re in one of the 20 O‘ahu spots carrying Paradise Ciders, including Maui Brewing Co. in Waikīkī, Grace in Growlers in Kailua and Roy’s Beach House in Kahuku.