Kaua’i, archaeologically the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands, and thought to be among the first settled by man, is aptly described in the opening line of a centuries-old song based on an ancient chant: Maika’i nō Kaua’i Hemolele i ka mālie – “Beautiful is Kaua’i; perfect, set in the calm.” It comes as no surprise, that this island, lauded by locals and visitors alike, also produces high quality consumables, and the rums, foods, and ready-to-pour cocktails produced by Kōloa Rum are no exception.

When the humans first migrated to Hawai’i from the Marquesas and Tahiti around 900 C.E., sugar cane was among the crops stored in the double-hulled canoes that traveled over 2,000 miles with little more than expert observation of the stars for guidance. Sugar cane was grown on Kaua’i during the time of the first recorded European contact by Captain James Cook in the late 18th Century; by 1835 the first commercial sugar enterprise in the islands had opened in Kōloa, near Kaua’i’s south shore to satisfy the palate of an increasingly worldly and sophisticated North American and European clientele. Sugar production proliferated and was prosperous on Kaua’i for over 150 years until the late 1990s when economic realities associated with the island’s remote location and lower cost competition ended commercial sugar production on the Garden Isle; a blow to a community struggling to grow a diversified economy to weather the ebbs and flows of the existing boom-and-bust, heavily tourism-dependent revenue stream.

While sugar grows well in the rich volcanic sun-and-rain-kissed soil of Kaua’i, it is essentially a commodity crop; Hawaiian sugar, with higher production and delivery costs, cannot command a higher price for significant quality gains like coffee, pineapple, and papaya. Unlike coffee, where slight environmental variations can vastly alter the finished product, sugar produced in Hawai’i is not markedly different from that produced in other sugar producing regions, putting processed sugar sales at a distinct disadvantage, unless further refined into a premium product.

Enter Kōloa Rum: a local, privately held company that began distilling rum on Kaua’i in Kōloa, the same district where Hawai’i sugar industry was born. Currently using stock from one of the last sugar harvests on Kaua’i, as well as sugar imported from Maui, Kōloa Rum distills four kinds of rum (White, Gold, Dark, and Spice) as well as premium ready-to-drink Mai Tai cocktails. The RTD Mai Tai, at 34 proof, has a higher alcohol content than competing products, and is closer in content to handmade cocktails served in bars. Stopping into the Company Store, located on the grounds of Kilohana Plantation makes for a pleasant interlude; from the company’s rum to rum cake and rum fudge sauce, and a variety of other Kaua’i made products in a pleasant, plantation style building, to the half-hourly tastings held in a special tasting room aside a working still, Kōloa Rum has also become a must-see stop for every Garden Isle visitor.

Kauai, Hawaii
Kōloa Rum’s Product Line – Photo Courtesy Kōloa Rum Company

The rum itself is impressive. All four varieties are exceedingly smooth for their proof (even the higher proof Dark and Spice rums are pleasantly drinkable), and of particular note are the strong, crisp vanilla notes in the Dark Rum – fresh and full. Compared with the typical heavy caramel of other dark rum varieties, the Dark Rum a very notable standout.

With a good selection of rum already, fans of Kōloa Rum will be excited to learn a Coconut Rum is in the final stages of planning approvals, and should be available on the market within the next 60 days, according to company President Bob Gunter. Bob also shared Kōloa Rum is exploring a Kahlua-type liqueur featuring Kaua’i estate grown coffee, and has even bigger plans for rebooting the historic sugar industry in the Kōloa District.

The company has also been researching rum production using raw cane juice (the bulk of commercial rum is produced from molasses or cane sugar; raw cane juice rums from elsewhere in the world are considered among the finest available) as well as a method which would extract the juice at the point of harvest in the field. This would allow for lower costs and higher quality, and as Bob pointed out, allow for a smaller environmental footprint. Unlike production of cane sugar, which requires cane fields to be burned, harvested, and replanted, cutting the stalks to extract the juice allows the plant (which is technically a grass, closely related to bamboo) to regrow without replanting; the spent cane husks can be returned to the soil or used in a variety of other green ways.

Although each island in the Hawaiian archipelago (which Mark Twain once dubbed “the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean”) has its devotees, those enchanted by the superlative beauty of the Garden Isle are among the most ardent and captivated adherents. The name chant about Kaua’i describes her as hemolele – perfect, and so much about the food and drink produced on this island live up to that ancient promise. Kōloa Rum appears poised to assume its position as a leading member of this cadre of products, spreading the unique Aloha shared in this special land to fans new and old throughout the world.

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