Fermentation takes about four to five days, although there’s considerable variation from variety to variety. Some varieties take as long as 12 days to ferment, and some never finish dry due to the starches present in the juice. Then, the fermented juice is single-pass distilled on Manulele’s 600-gallon four-plate hybrid still, made by Artisan Still. Distillery manager Noah Brown, who brings experience from a small craft distillery in Kentucky, typically engages all the plates, although they’re experimenting with disengaging the plates when distilling cane destined for barrel aging. All of Manulele Distillers’ products are currently marketed under the Ko Hana brand. The line includes Ko Hana Kea (Hawaiian for “white”), the name of their single varietal unaged agricole-style rums; Ko Hana Koho, a barrel-aged agricole rum; and Ko Hana Koa, a cask-strength barrel-aged agricole rum. They also produce a liqueur called Kokolea, made from a rum base sweetened with local honey and infused with cacao nibs. Brown brought a spirit of experimentation to Manulele’s aging program, trying new barrels as well as used bourbon, brandy, and even coffee casks. “If something sounds good,” he says, “I’m willing to risk one barrel.” Oahu’s hot weather means evaporation from casks is substantial, about 15 percent a year. In a nod to Hawaii’s agricultural past, the tasting room is located adjacent to the distillery plant inside a stylish, low-slung building that was once the historic Del Monte company store. Step inside and you’re greeted with a restorative glass of sweet,
slightly cucumber-like sugarcane juice. Beyond, visitors peruse an informational exhibit about the history of Hawaiian sugarcane, or sample rums at the long, low-slung bar at the far end. After tasting three different versions of Kea back-to-back, it’s obvious that each cane has substantial varietal character. The differences between expressions are dramatic. The rum made from a cane variety called kea is piercing and intense, with notes of white truffle and tropical fruit. Another, made from mahai’ula, is reminiscent of a stonefruit eau de vie, fruity with a subtle hint of bitter almond. Lehi cane makes a briny, saline spirit that’s great in a martini. Each year, Manulele makes a limited edition “Collection” rum, produced from a combination of every cane variety growing on the farm. This year’s expression was very floral and complex, with faint minerality and that unmistakable grassy sweetness only found in rum agricole. Sugarcane is no longer a major industry in Hawaii. Today, the more profitable pineapple is king. In fact, in December of 2016, the last major sugarcane plantation left on the Islands closed, making Manulele Distillers—all 22 acres of it—the largest sugarcane grower in the state. It’s a bittersweet feeling. But Robert and his team are looking forward, one eye on the past, another on the future. At Manulele Distillers, making distinctive rum means preserving history, one cane at a time.
Manulele Distillers is located in Kunia Camp, HI. For more information visit www.kohanarum.com or call (808) 649-0830.
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