Saccharum officinarum, otherwise known as sugar cane, has been a life blood of the Hawaiian islands for hundreds of years. Over the past two decades the tall weed like grass has slowly disappeared from the gentle slopping hills of each island and so has a unique way of plantation life. I literally grew up surrounded by sugar cane in Waialua and like anyone who grew up in a mill town there are distinct smells, sounds and sights that instantly remind you of your childhood.
Long gone are the load roars of gigantic cane haulers and falling black ashes from burning cane fields (it wasn’t a good idea to wear white shirts to school on those days), but the smell of sugar is still alive on Oahu. As I pulled into the old Kunia General Store and Post Office, now the tasting room for Ko Hana Hawaiian Agricole Rum, I was instantly transported to back to my childhood. The sweet, yet pungent smell from a recently harvested batch of sugar cane gently wafted through the air. Here in the quiet central plains of Oahu, sugar cane is being revitalized as a Hawaiian crop, but the end product is something drastically different than what we’ve known in the past.
Manulele Distillers, the makers of Ko Hana Rum, has a very clear goal – control the entire process to create a completely local product. This of course starts with growing and harvesting the sugar cane. Founder Robert Dawson didn’t want to grow just any ordinary sugar cane. He spent years searching for heirloom varieties that were used by native Hawaiians. These now wild varieties are drastically different (more below) than the heavily modified versions used by commercial sugar plantations over the past 200 years in Hawaii. With the help of scientists, Dawson finally was able to isolate a number of unique varieties of sugar cane, each with its own distinct color, sugar content and flavor. Dawson eventually partnered with Jason Brand, owner of Kunia Farms, a leader in sustainable farming, and they set out to create a product that they could trace from the field to the bottle.
The first rows of cane were planted over 2 years ago with a varietal called Manulele (hence the name of the distillery) on a farm in Waialua that was once part of the Waialua sugar plantation. Since the first planting, six additional acres of different varieties of cane have been planted in Kunia. Over the next year they hope to have a total of 24 acres planted in Kunia alone, along with the Waialua crop.
Currently there are three varieties planted, Manulele, Lahi and Pakaweli, each with their own fascinating backstory. Although I grew up surrounded by sugar cane, I honestly knew little to nothing about it’s importance or use in Hawaiian culture. The Hawaiians, like many polynesian groups, grew dozens of different types of cane and each had a special use and spiritual importance. Aside from being used for food and fiber, many of the varieties were believed to have special love powers, either attracting or warding away lovers. Many of these stories are woven into the character of each batch of Ko Hana rum.
The lengthy process of growing cane can take up to a full year before the rows are cut by hand. You won’t see any blazing burns in these sugar fields. Each stalk is cut and trimmed in the field by hand to preserve the precious juice inside. They are able to cut the same plant up to 5 times before finally having to replant the fields with new seedlings. After five cuts (or five years) the plant begins to produce less sugar and becomes less productive. It’s amazing that just three rows of Pakaweli (the purple variety above) can produce enough cane juice for about 400 375ml bottles of rum. The heirloom cane varieties differ greatly from the common industrial cane by not only looking different (various colors, leave shapes and being shorter), they are actually filled with far more cane juice. In industrial cane operations, high liquid contents in the stalk is undesirable because it takes far longer and more energy to dry out. Their main goal is to get the cane stalks dried so they can be milled and then processed to create molasses and other sugar byproducts.
For agricole rum makers, the number one priority is juice, since they are not using any sugar byproducts to create their rum. Agricole is a french term for rum made from entirely freshly pressed cane juice. Many large rum producers actually use molasses as the base fermentable to create their rum. At Ko Hana, they are producing single batch rums, so the differences and uniqueness of each cane variety is allowed to express itself.
After the cane is harvested and pressed to extract all of the sugary juice it is fermented, just like beer. The cane juice is transferred into square fermentation tanks (coincidentally the same shape as their bottles) and a unique and proprietary yeast is immediately pitched. On early test batches Dawson used commercially available yeast, the same stuff that most distillers used. He ran dozens of tests, trying to isolate the strain that had a high enough alcohol tolerance while still providing the flavor he was looking for. By chance, he got connected with Mel Jackson at Hawaii Agriculture Resource Center (HARC) who had been isolating various yeast strains off of cacao plants for chocolate production. Jackson had a unique yeast strain that he found at the HARC facility in Maunawili that originally he thought would work to ferment cacao. That never worked out and Jackson offered it to Dawson to try with fermenting his cane juice.
Dawson and distillery manager Noah Brown love the results from the local yeast. It produces a clean flavor and aroma that they note was different than the commercial strains they had been using. The only drawback is that its upper limits of alcohol production top out around 11%, but they feel having a local yeast with unique qualities are worth the lower fermentation levels. An interesting difference between beer fermentation and this fermentation process is that they are not controlling the temperature. Since the fermented juice will eventually be distilled, they don’t have to worry about the same off flavors that brewers do.
The distillation process is a fascinating mix of chemistry and human ingenuity. It always amazes me to watch liquid turn to vapor, then back to liquid and in the process create alcohol. I’ll spare the nitty gritty details of distillation since I’m not incredibly versed on it, but the basic principle is that ethanol boils off at 178 degrees Fahrenheit. The ethanol vapors are forced by pressure out of the pot and into a chamber where they are constantly condensed and re-evaporated repeatedly until a pure form of alcohol is produced.
But not every drop of alcohol that comes out is kept. The Ko Hana team only keeps a small percentage of the final runnings called the hearts, which is the finest and best. The first runnings, called heads, and the final runnings called tails are discarded. Through a process of tasting, smelling and even touching the liquid the team continually monitors the runnings to find the hearts. I was told that the heads and tails can have a heavy grassy, wet paper and offensive aroma. The tails will start to feel slicker and more oily.
Each batch of Ko Hana rum spends a minimum of 90 days in stainless steel tanks. The white rum, or Kea, stays in stainless tanks for another 7-12 months. The rest is transferred to various oak barrels. So far Brown has been using new charred American oak barrels, used Bourbon barrels and used neutral French oak chardonnay barrels. The rum spends a minimum of 7 months in barrels, but sometimes much longer. Some of the current bourbon barrels once held 4 Roses, while the chardonnay barrels are primarily used for finishing and don’t impart any wine flavor at all.
It’s apparent when tasting each rum side by side how different they are. Since each batch is from a single variety of cane, you can pick up subtle differences in each offering. The Kea made with Manulele is brightly floral with a lingering grainy finish, while the Kea made with Lahi (which unfortunately isn’t for sale), was much softer with more tropical botanical notes. Even the dark rum, aged in various barrels had unique and distinct flavors differences. You can’t help but feel a deep connection to the process and people who created the liquid in your glass when you see the hand written label with the cane varietal and the batch number.
Currently the tasting room is only open on Wednesdays from 10am to 2pm, but they will soon open on Saturdays as well. The tasting room is large and spacious with beautiful mural sized photographs of the entire cane growing process. In an era when the term artisan is over used and mistreated it is so refreshing to see a product that is truly hand crafted by very passionate people.
A special thanks to Kyle Reutner for taking the time to show me around and give me an extensive tour.