Sample All of Ko‘olau Distillery’s Local Liquor Offerings on a Tour in Kailua
Tour the distillery and taste whiskey, moonshine, two kinds of gin and soon, vodka in Windward O‘ahu.
Tucked into a Windward industrial park, Ko‘olau Distillery offers a fun way to learn more about how local spirits are made. Part of the fun is that the tour ends with a liquor tasting.
Ko‘olau Distillery began selling whiskey four years ago and has quietly continued to expand its local liquor line. Last year, the company introduced Māhealani Moonshine and Tradewind Gin. The gin is refreshing, holds up well in a cocktail and leans into a botanical flavor with hints of hibiscus. That sets it apart from the British dry style. There’s also a barrel-aged version of the gin, darker with a caramel-like finish. The founders, Eric Dill and Ian Brooks, also announced plans to debut a vodka by Father’s Day, but more on that later.
For the tours, distillery general manager Justin Rivera joins Dill and Brooks, alternately describing the science behind the spirits, a bit of history and the occasional dad joke. You get the sense that these folks are serious about the craft by the well-tended copper stills, the neatly laid out setup and their enthusiasm. But they also enjoy the playful experimentation with flavors and haven’t adopted the somber pretensions that can accompany imbibers of dark spirits. In the lab portion of the tour, we got a peek at a banana-flavored liquor, a lavender gin and possibly something that incorporates breakfast cereal.
While you can book the tours online, people often stop by for tastings on weekday afternoons or weekends. Still, on Friday and Saturday evenings, the atmosphere turns more festive when the distillery adds live music and food trucks. It’s set up as a distillery, not a bar. “The point is so you can enjoy a cocktail where it was made,” Dill says. So expect to sample and learn, not to spend an entire afternoon.
We learned more about the veteran-owned business at a media event in May that showed off a larger space and expanding line-up. The small business is earning its reputation as an off-the-beaten-track place to check out with friends or out-of-town visitors. That updated tasting room includes an inviting vibe with colorful surfboards, benches and tables made by Windward’s Woodworking by Kini and comfy stools.
Ko‘olau Distillery began with two friends who’d met through the military and shared a love of Hawai‘i and whiskey. The distillery footprint recently quadrupled: from 1,200 to 4,800 square feet with an investment of $400,000. Dill and Brooks, now retired from the Marine Corps, began focusing on a bourbon-style liquor called Old Pali Road Whiskey.
Powered by filtered local water, the core of all their spirits, they produce in the American style, blending a 4-year-old Kentucky bourbon into a 90% corn, 10% malted barley whiskey. The company’s first effort at local liquor earned a regular spot on Costco shelves, a boost for the Windward small business.
“The water on this side of the island is some of the best in the world,” Dill says. He adds they strive to source other local ingredients and products as much as possible: corn, hibiscus from Maui and three kinds of citrus. They also feature Sky Kombucha and Mānoa Chocolate.
When they started, the whiskey won a reputation as light and easy to drink in an under-$60 bottle. Brooks says the flavor has been described as hinting of kettle corn and he’s OK with that.
The company released Māhealani Moonshine in the spring of last year, filtering it five times for a smooth finish from the corn-cane blend. Since it’s a neutral spirit, the distillery also sells a line of flavor infusion packets that customers can use to customize the flavor.
I enjoyed a refreshing citrusy Hidden Gem cocktail made with their Tradewind Gin, sort of a cross between a gin-and-tonic and an aviation with that distinct purple hue from the crème de violette. Dill is justifiably proud of that hibiscus flavor. “You get citrus up front, then some juniper, coriander and star anise and right at the end, you’ll be pick up a floral note,” he says. The barrel-aged version of the gin also holds up well in an old fashioned.
Next up is a corn-based vodka that is expected just in time for Father’s Day.
Open Monday to Thursday, 12 to 5 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 12 to 8 p.m. and Sundays, 12 to 7 p.m., Tickets for tours: $25 adults, $20 for kamaʻāina and military dependents, $15 for active duty military, veterans and retired military; 905 Kapa‘a Quarry Place, Kailua, Building 50, Unit 14 (808) 261-0685, koolaudistillery.com, @koolaudistillery