Kōloa rum elevates the art of drinking local

Barb Forsyth

KAUAI—Kōloa Rum Company, Kauai’s first official producer of rum, is a delicious study in irony. Its success coincides with the demise of the very product from which it is produced: Kauai sugarcane. The last mill on the island closed last October. 

Rum and sugar are bound together in Hawaii’s history. The first island that Captain Cook’s ship reached in Hawaii, in 1778, was Kauai. The ship contained barrels of rum for his sailor’s daily ration of grog. Then, the first successful sugar plantation in Hawaii was established near Kōloa Town in 1835, where the original stone chimney from the Kōloa Mill can still be seen today.

Kōloa Rum Company produces their rum in a vintage 1,210 gallon copper pot, manufactured in New England shortly after World War II, and imported from Kentucky, where it was previously used to distill bourbon. The traditional hand-hammered copper pot still incorporates a copper column with seven individual plates, which allow the rising alcohol vapor to “reflux,” or become more concentrated, as the vapor rises through the column. After passing through the seventh plate, the alcohol vapor enters the condensation chamber (condenser) where it is cooled and condensed into liquid form. This process is believed to yield a high-proof rum that is clean and smooth and without many of the undesirable flavor characteristics commonly found in rum of a lesser quality.

The base material for Kōloa Rum’s distillation is not molasses, as is typical of rum, but rather raw crystallized sugar, which contains naturally high concentrations of sucrose and molasses without having been heated, cooked, and processed.

The sugar had been coming from the former Gay and Robinson Plantation but now Kōloa is collaborating with a local landowner to grow its own sugarcane. 

The water used is pure mountain rainwater from Mt. Waialeale—the wettest spot on earth—and the nearby mountain peaks and rainforests, which gives the rum its sense of place. 

Last month I was fortunate enough to be on Kauai and sample their products at the source. The richly appointed tasting room is located on the grounds of historic Kilohana Plantation in Puhi, just south of Lihue. Locals are likely familiar with the property as the site of the Kauai Plantation Railroad, a popular tourist attraction. But now they, too, have reason to stop.

Denise was pouring that day, and her enthusiasm for and pride in the product was apparent. I would have liked to linger on a barstool and sip rum all afternoon but unfortunately the tasting room lacks barstools. Apparently, Kauai County’s liquor regulations currently allow tastings of just one ounce per person, per day. 

Good thing for them, then, that the rum pretty much sells itself. The first I sampled was the white rum, which is remarkably smooth and the best as a mixer. Denise explained that it can stand in for a premium vodka. I personally wouldn’t make a martini with it, but I would certainly drink it with the simplest of mixers: seltzer, lime, a touch of sugar, and ice.

I passed on the gold variety; the one-ounce rule means you pick two out of three and I wanted to hold out for the dark rum. Denise claims it’s the one to reach for when making a rum and Coke. As a big “Cuba Libre” fan, my husband gave it a go. I stole a quick sip, enough to see that the tequila analogy Denise also offered was on point, if for the color alone. 

The dark rum, however, is their claim to fame. It has not been aged in oak, as is a common practice with dark rums. Instead, the intensity of flavor is the result of the blender’s mastery of spices. It is delicious served on the rocks—no need to mix it with anything—or as a floater for tropical cocktails such as a Mai Tai. It would be perfect in a bread pudding, or any dessert calling for liquor.  It’s no wonder that it garnered one of prestigious gold medals at the 2010 Miami Rum Renaissance Festival in Miami, Florida, an impressive feat considering that their license to distill alcohol had been issued only one year earlier, on April 1, 2009. 

It is a new year, a time when I like to make resolutions about my personal growth, my health, and my relationships. Usually, after the post-holiday bloat, I vow to eat and drink less. This year, I vow to just do those things better. You know, quality over quantity. Kōloa rum, now available on Oahu at retailers such as Whole Foods, seems like a good place to start. Cheers to that!

For more information, visit www.koloarum.com.