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Commercial micro-brewing and craft-brewing have been established in Hawaii for quite some time now. A handful of breweries and brew pubs have gained a strong foothold here and in other U.S. markets. A handful of brands like Kona Brewing and Maui Brewing have a variety of products, and brew pubs like Brew’d and REAL/A Gastropub in Honolulu specialize in importing small-batch brews from small mainland brewers.
But only now is the art of commercial distilling beginning to be embraced as a viable business model in Hawaii. And it should. Hawaii has ideal conditions for it: some of the purest spring water in the world, rich, volcanic soil, and a staggering variety of tropical fruit and plants to provide unique flavors to the rum and vodkas being distilled on Kauai, Maui, and Oahu. A few distillers even concoct their own versions of okolehao, an alcoholic brew originally made from the root of the ti plant by ancient Hawaiians.
The Koloa Rum Company on Kauai is the island’s first and only licensed distillery (although rum has been made on Kauai since the time of the first sugar cane harvest in Koloa way back in 1837). Koloa Rum Company’s first batch was distilled in 2009, when the Tasting Room & Company Store opened at Kilohana Plantation. They now have five varieties: White, Gold, Dark, Spiced, and Coconut.
Over on Maui the Hali’imaile Distilling Company, distills Paui Maui, a fine vodka with a uniquely Hawaiian twist: it’s made from pineapples grown in Upcountry Maui. Although much of the pineapple industry on Maui has faded, Pau Maui still grows the high quality pineapples that made Maui the pineapple capitol of the world. Although the taste of pineapple is absent from Pau Maui’s vodka, it does make an ideal mash for distillation. Pau Maui Vodka offers visitors a chance to schedule a visit to their tasting room. Also on Maui is Haleakala Distillers, which offers a variety of light, dark, and spiced rums created from locally-sourced ingredients.
On Oahu, Island Distillers has gained critical acclaim for their sugarcane and coconut vodkas, using pure spring water and a lava rock filtration process. It’s one of the Hawaii distilleries making its own version of okolehao. There’s also Manulele Distillers, which is using ancient strains of Hawaiian sugar cane long abandoned for more industrially-friendly varieties to craft its own unique Ko Hana Agricole Rum (agricole is a product of sugar cane juice rather than molasses).
Not nearly as readily available as familiar, industrially produced spirits, these Hawaiian distilled products can be harder to find than major spirit brands. But if you want a true taste of Hawaii in that Mai Tai, Blue Hawaii or Zombie you’re sipping poolside or at a beach barbecue, ask your bartender or liquor purveyor about their selection of Hawaii’s best booze.