Ko Hana rums are made with the juice of rare varieties of Hawaiian sugarcane. // © 2016 Ari Espay/Liza Poletti
Feature image (above): At the end of the Manulele Distillery tour, clients sample distinctive Ko Hana rums. // © 2016 Ari Espay/Liza Poletti
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Hawaii’s sugarcane plantations grew hardy hybrids that were easy to harvest. These days, a small but significant Oahu operation called Manulele Distillers is growing rare varieties of sugarcane rooted in ancient history, then turning their juices into the distinctive — and very tasty — Ko Hana Agricole Rum.
Based in west-central Oahu, Manulele is currently the island’s only rum distillery that offers tours and tastings. Visitors can stop by for farm tours and tastes of world-class rum, which is unique because it’s made from Hawaiian cane juice rather than the more common ingredient of molasses.
“I love the idea of showing people a product truly made here on Oahu,” said Kyle Reutner, brand manager for Manulele. “I am a huge believer that what goes into a product impacts the final result.”
During my recent tour, guide Damian Plaza explained how Manulele cultivates 15 acres of cane varietals that native Hawaiians grew 800 years ago. Each type of cane has its own color and sugar content, resulting in a very specific flavor of rum.
As we browsed Manulele’s display garden, Plaza talked about the traditional uses and cultural importance of each cane varietal. He traced the company’s production process, from hand-harvesting the cane and juicing the stalks to fermentation, distillation and aging.
The tour ended in the distillery’s handsome tasting room, a renovated 1950s plantation store. There, Plaza poured us four samples. The first two, both white rums, tasted remarkably different from each other due to their cane of origin. The third pour, a dark barrel-aged rum, had smokey overtones, while the fourth was a hybrid infused with cacao and honey. Bite-size cubes of Manulele rum cake added an extra touch of decadence to the experience.
Reutner describes the distillery tour as a perfect fit for Hawaii’s growing trend of agritourism.
“We offer a little something for everyone, from history buffs to foodies,” Reutner told me. “The quality of our product is a big advantage. We strive to make something that elite restaurants and bars want to serve.”