Coming Soon: Old Pali Road Whiskey by Ko‘olau Distillery
A new Kailua distillery is producing locally made bourbon-style whiskey.
Photos: Ko‘olau Distillery
The number of locally produced beers is at an all-time high (Honolulu Beerworks, Beer Lab HI, Aloha Beer Co., Waikīkī Brewing Co., Lanikai Brewing Co. and many others), but there have been only two locally produced whiskeys in recent memory: Hali‘imaile Distilling Co.’s Paniolo Blended Whiskey, the result of mixing a pineapple distillate with bourbon made in Kentucky; and the single-barrel Ala Wai Whiskey, with a name that raises eyebrows among local residents familiar with the murky waters of the infamous canal.
But by the end of February, you’ll be able to find Ko‘olau Distillery Co.’s new Old Pali Road Whiskey in supermarkets and bars around town. Lt. Cols. Ian Brooks and Eric Dill, two Marine Corps pals who have made Hawai‘i their home, believed that investing in the creation of a local whiskey was worth the wait—and the risk. And, well, it’s about time. Their Old Pali Road whiskey tastes of corn and wood, with a molasseslike sweetness, similar to a smoother Jack Daniel’s. Which makes sense: Both use a sour mash process that uses a portion of a previous batch of grain mash to make the next batch. Old Pali Road Whiskey has a little bite at first sip (a few drops of water or an ice cube can help to mellow it out) and a flavor that lingers on the palate.
One of the reasons we don’t have much local whiskey in the Islands is because some of the necessary ingredients, such as barley and wheat, don’t grow in large quantities in Hawai‘i, whereas rum, for example, relies on more easily accessible molasses or sugar cane. Another reason is the amount of time needed to distill a batch. Often, whiskey is touted for how long the stuff has been able to rest in the cask and soak up the flavor of the barrel. A 16-year-old whiskey will fetch a higher price than an 8-year-old whiskey, and both will be dwarfed by the cost of a 30-year-old bottle. For a business just starting out, having to wait several years before being able to deliver your first product is daunting.
“Eric and I are both stationed here; I’m a reservist and he’s active duty. We met in 2001 on his way back from a combat deployment—he was with one of the first Marine units in Afghanistan—and we talked about one day working together and owning a business,” says Brooks, co-owner of Ko‘olau Distillery Co. Dill, who has a close friend that owns a craft distillery in Indiana, had been fascinated with making whiskey and taught himself the process over the course of a decade. When an opportunity emerged to open a distillery of his own in Kailua, the two friends went for it.
“We make a bourbon-style American whiskey, using primarily corn with malted barley,” Brooks says. “But the key is the high alkaline water in Hawai‘i. It takes about three decades for rainfall to filter through the volcanic rock and reach the aquifer, and it’s exceptional for producing a smooth flavor.”
When their whiskey comes out of the distillation still, it’s mixed with that filtered water (to bring the alcohol percentage down from moonshine levels to a respectable 86-proof) and blended with 4-year-old Kentucky bourbon (Brooks and Dill still need at least two to four years for their locally made whiskey to rest in the barrels for a quality taste).
Wherever Brooks and Dill can support Hawai‘i’s agriculture, they do. The corn they distill whiskey from is sourced locally, from farmers markets, as much as possible. “We’ve sourced from Waimānalo and elsewhere. We also met with a local corn supplier earlier this week,” Dill says. “Our goal is for 100 percent of our ingredients to be from Hawai‘i, but that comes in time. That’s our long-term goal and it’s achievable. We just need people to love our product as much as we do.” In addition to the filtered water that gets mixed with the whiskey, their process requires cold water to cool the batches that come out of the still. Instead of just turning on the tap and wasting hundreds of gallons of water to this end, they’ve built a radiator system that recycles and recools the same 50 gallons.
Ko‘olau Distillery’s first batch will sell for around $60 a bottle. Customers will also be able to pick up bottles at the company’s production facility off Kapa‘a Quarry Place, as well as eventually enjoy small tours of the facility with a walk-through of their distillation process. The operation is small for now (they’re producing 1,800 bottles per batch, with each batch number painstakingly handwritten on each bottle by Brooks and Dill) but as interest grows, they hope to expand production. In a few years, their goal is to ditch the Kentucky stuff and offer whiskey that’s 100 percent distilled in Hawai‘i.
“We’re trying to do the best we can, with as much as we can with what’s here,” says Dill. “There’s no reason that, in a decade, we can’t have a whiskey made completely with local ingredients that’s been aged five years in Hawai‘i.”
Ko‘olau Distillery, 905 Kalaniana‘ole Highway, Unit 5014, Kailua, (808) 261-0685, koolaudistillery.com