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It’s time to pay attention to Hawaiian rum — why this liquor should be on your bar cart

Hawaii grows a lot more than just pineapples

A Kuleana Rum Works sugarcane field.
Kuleana / Kuleana

While craft beer and whiskey tend to get the headlines, there’s another homegrown beverage gaining a much-deserved following. It goes by Hawaiian rum, and if you haven’t started paying serious attention to the fine liquor, now’s the time.

Kuleana Rum Works is a great example, one of several shining stars emerging from the Hawaiian spirits scene. Granted, Hawaii has a bit of an advantage for rum, with its tropical climate ideal for growing sugarcane (Louisiana and a few other states are trying their hand, too), but you still have to make the stuff. And the results are as complex and exciting as anything coming out of the Caribbean. In fact, these sip-worthy rums deserve to be in the same conversation as single malt whiskies or coveted Scotches.

Steve Jefferson founded Kuleana. The Hawaiian distillery is located in Waimea on the northern end of the Big Island. It is already turning heads, producing fine rums that have deservedly taken home some significant awards. “It’s an exciting time for Hawaiian rum,” he says. “I learned about these plants years ago from Stanford University Ph.D. candidate Noa Lincoln, who discovered the Hawaiians had then developed about 35 species of kō that could trace their lineage back to the original two or three varieties brought by the settling Wayfinders about 1,000 years ago.”

He adds that such fascinating info is the basis of how the brand produces its rum. The company stresses the raw sugar cane (kō) juice, which forms the vital base of its best product, the Hawaiian Rum Agricole. Others include Nanea, a blend of Central and South American rums and Hawaiian Agricole, aged in bourbon and Cognac barrels. The Hokulei is also exceptional, a blend of aged rums with banana, date, and sherry notes (not to mention some tropical fruit).

Sugar cane has a long history on the island, used by native Hawaiians for any number of things, from a sweet snack to thatch for housing. While a lot of ugly colonialism is tied to rum, the newest chapter sees a lot of local involvement, meaning Hawaiians are taking back a crop they know well. And the results, especially on the rum front, are promising.

Kuleana rum bottles.

The terroir and sustainability elements

“The kō is incredible,” says Jefferson. “Each variety has looks and tastes remarkably different from each other. These plants only grow in the tropics, so Hawaii is the only state where they grow. In the world of rum, Kuleana’s rum-making process is unique and special. While all rum has to be made from the sugarcane plant, 95%+ is made from either molasses or dried sugar. We make our rum from fresh cane juice, which is extremely difficult and super flavorful. In fact, about three percent of the world’s rum is made from fresh juice, so it is exceedingly rare.”

Anybody who’s had fresh sugarcane juice in Hawaii or a good rhum agricole knows as much — the stuff is more flavorful. With just-pressed sugarcane, you get a grassy element, along with tremendous depth of flavor and more personality. Kuleana makes a great agricole, one Jefferson credits to a careful fermentation process.

“The process of how we make rum cannot be duplicated by molasses or processed sugar,” he says. “But really the star is the kō. Our super-premium rum pays homage to this piece of treasured Hawaiian history and ensures it lives on.” He adds that the brand never adds colors, flavors, or sweeteners to anything they make.

Sustainability has been at the forefront of Hawaii’s rum renaissance, as are most things in the archipelago. “When it comes to farming, we concentrate on the soil,” Jefferson says. “When the soil is happy, the plants are happy and the product is a spectacular rum.”

He adds that Kuleana does not bring conventional farming into its process. The brand uses drip irrigation from its own well and organic fertilizer and does not slash and burn the cane for harvests, a process that releases lots of carbon emissions, eliminates biodiversity, and more.

“We cut the sugarcane by hand and let it grow back as a perennial crop, sequestering the carbon. We also return the crushed can — as well as the leftover juice from the still — back the fields, returning all the nutrients back to the soil,” he adds.

Sugarcane at Kuleana.

What the future holds for Hawaiian rum

Jefferson believes the future of Hawaiian rum is bright and full of promise. “We’ve been seeing rum making a comeback in the last few years, as did tequila and American whiskey before,” he says. “At Kuleana, we pride ourselves on leading this comeback and what we call the ‘Rum Revolution 2.0.’”

Part of that movement involves purity; another part involves process. “We are creating one of the most difficult spirits to make from the most interesting and delicious sugarcane plants in the world, and third, we are using this Agricole as a magic ingredient to create some of the most interesting blends in the world,” he says.

The revolution includes others, of course. Additional brands to look out for include Kohana Distillers and Koloa Distillery, which specialize in a bill of flavored rums. And in case you thought they all start with “k,” there are Manulele Distillers in Honolulu as well. They’re all shedding light on the real potential of Hawaiian rum — as a product that can spotlight a special place and genuinely unique flavors.

How to drink it? Treat it like the high-end spirit it is and sip it in a glass that will allow you to enjoy the aromatics. Or, go Hawaiian and mix it up in a Mai Tai. Make sure you have almond syrup, lime juice, orange liqueur, and fresh mint.

“Our goal is to ensure rum will be enjoyed and celebrated as a world-class spirit by honoring the sugarcane,” says Jefferson. “It’s an exciting time for rum.”

For more spirits-forward material, check out our features on the best rum according to bartenders and the best rums for a Daiquiri. While you’re at it, check out our Hawaii travel guide and start planning a trip. Maui is back open for business and the Rainbow State could use your tourism dollars.

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Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
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