From the Mai Tai to the Daiquiri to the Blue Hawai‘i, rum is the anchor spirit of many island-style cocktail. But it wasn’t until relatively recently that Hawaiian rum—as in rum that is made in Hawai’i and made from Hawai’i grown ingredients—began making waves of its own.
In the last decade, a number of new rum distilleries such as Kōloa (koloarum.com) and Kō Hana (kohanarum.com) have opened throughout the islands, spurred in part by the growth in small distilleries all across the U.S., but also because making rum in Hawai‘i makes a lot of sense.
Rum production traditionally has thrived in areas where sugar production was high, such as the Caribbean, where rum was made by distilling molasses (a byproduct of sugar production) or sugarcane juice. And so it would be logical that Hawai’i, which also has a long, complicated history of sugar production, would also be home to a solid roster of rum producers. The only catch: the last of the big sugarcane plantations shut down last year. Now, in a twist, demand for Hawai’i-made rum is remapping the growth of sugarcane in the islands.
Kōloa Rum was founded 10 years ago with the intention of using Kaua‘i sugar to make its signature line of white, gold and dark rums. When the last Kaua‘i mill closed in 2009, the distillery stockpiled as much raw cane sugar as possible to continue production and then went through the same process when their next supplier, the last sugar mill on Maui, closed last year. Nikki Munro, Kōloa’s sales and marketing representative, says that while company was dismayed that the mills shut, it could yet to be proven to a boon. The distillery is now deep in the phase of research and development for growing new sugarcane on Kaua‘i, with eight acres farmed on West Kaua‘i and a small amount at their soon-to-open new distillery in Kōloa. “We want to keep sugar on Kaua‘i,” she says of their plans.
Kō Hana Rum, a new entry on the island of O‘ahu, started from a different vantage point: Manulele Distillers set out to grow indigenous varieties of sugarcane, which was brought to the islands by early Polynesian settlers, to use in rum production. To preserve the flavors of the unique varieties, Kō Hana makes an Agricole-style rum, in which the fresh sugarcane juice (and not sugar or molasses) is distilled. The result is wildly different than most typical rums and truly unique to Hawai’i.
All of this new rum production couldn’t have come at a better time. The fervor for island-made rum is driven in part by a new interest among the craft spirits community that have some hailing rum as the next big thing, akin to the craze for Bourbon or Mezcal. And never has a spirits category been more ready or ripe for reinvention; rum has always been a nebulous category of spirits.
There are no aging requirements, and even the most well-known styles—white (or silver), gold, and dark—have no legal definition. The only requirement is that it be distilled from a sugarcane product. That means that to truly understand what’s on the shelves in this age of exper- imentation and craft distilleries, you’ve got to try out a number of bottles. Here’s where to start:
KŌLOA RESERVE THREE-YEAR AGED HAWAIIAN RUM
Last year, Kōloa unveiled this new aged rum, made by storing its white rum in bourbon oak barrels for at least three years. The rum takes on an oaky, smoky flavor with a hint of orange peel. The mellow, complex profile is best when sipped neat or used in simple spirit-for-ward craft cocktails, such as a Rum Old Fashioned.
KŌLOA WHITE RUM
If you’re looking to make classic rum beach cocktails or mixed drinks, this bottling from Koloa is a great pick. The clean and mild taste makes a good backbone for Piña Coladas or tiki-style drinks.
KŌLOA HANA KEA WHITE AGRICOLE RUM
If you think you know what a white rum is supposed to taste like, take another look. This bottling, made from distilling fresh cane juice, is wildly different, with grassy, earthy notes. Start off by trying it in a simple daiquiri or Collins-like high-ball to get the full aromatic effect.
KŌLOA HANA KOA CASK STRENGTH RUM
The distillery ages its white rum in oak barrels and reserves the most distinctive for its limited Koa label, which is bottled at 110 to 125 proof.
KŌLOA HANA KOKOLEKA CACAO AND HONEY RUM
Made by blending its White rum with locally grown cacao and honey, this unique bottling is a perfect wintertime digestif.