Kō Hana Produces Rum From Rare, Native Hawaiian Sugar Cane

How Robert Dawson harvests sugar cane for Kō Hana rum.
Clockwise from top left: Robert Dawson harvests sugar cane for Kō Hana rum; Kō Hana’s 30-plus cultivars of native Hawaiian sugar cane include manulele, pāpa‘a, lahi, ‘akoki and pakaweli; bottles of Kō Hana rum; sampling the rum aged in bourbon barrels.
Photos: David Croxford

Robert Dawson didn’t start out making rum. About a decade ago, he was cataloging and planting all the ancient Hawaiian sugar cane varieties that he could get his hands on—varietals that had long been passed over for hybrids that grew straighter and taller and were easier to harvest via machine. A former information technology consultant from Phoenix, Ariz., he had lots of ideas for the sugar cane. Rum came to his mind first, but also less obvious products like surfboard wax.

He teamed up with retired finance executive Jason Brand, and they now have the largest collection of native Hawaiian sugar cane in the world, plus 30 acres and a distillery for Kō Hana rum (translation: “work of the cane”). It’s not like most rum produced in the world. Whereas 99 percent of rum starts with molasses, the byproduct of industrial sugar production, Kō Hana is making rum from hand-harvested, fresh-pressed sugar cane juice, in the style of rhum agricole from Martinique.

And the beauty of cane juice rum is that Kō Hana can produce rums from single varietals of sugar cane. Each month, Dawson uses a different sugar cane to distill his rum. So far, his batches have included lahi and manulele, the lahi “very green and grassy with soft notes of cream and butterscotch,” Dawson says, while the manulele has an “earthiness at the forefront, then finishes with rock candy and cinnamon.”

The Pig and the Lady was the first place to carry Kō Hana rum, thanks to bartender Kyle Reutner’s apprenticeship at the distillery. He loves the “tropical fruit off of the nose and long sweet finish” of Kō Hana’s lahi rum, as compared to the “much more neutral” flavor of the typical white rum. At the restaurant, the Kunia Road cocktail combines fresh sugar cane juice with its distilled counterpart, the two playing off of each other’s fresh green and floral notes. You can also find Kō Hana cocktails at Salt, Lucky Belly and Tiki’s, and to go straight to the source, stop by Kō Hana’s brand-new tasting room in Kunia to sample the different rums side by side, including a few aged in bourbon and chardonnay barrels.

Kohanarum.com. 375ML bottle available at the distillery for $33.

Find out which three drinks use Kō Hana rum in our Best Bars: The Tiki Revival feature.