This Hawaiian Distillery Wants to Save the Islands' Sugarcane
KōHana Hawaiian Agricole Rum relies on heirloom cane that's on the brink of extinction.
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By now, everyone's heard of the farm-to-table movement. But grass-to-glass? That's a new one.
"Everything we make, we grow. We're 100-percent vertically integrated. I say 'grass-to-glass.' It goes from our fields to the bottle, and we're involved in every capacity," says Kyle Reutner, brand manager for Manulele Distillers' KōHana Hawaiian Agricole Rum and co-founder of Hawai'i Bitters Company.
"We don't outsource bottling, we don't outsource farming. We do everything."
We're walking through sugarcane fields on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, about 25 miles inland from Waikiki Beach. This cane will eventually be transformed into KōHana craft spirits.
While great for drinking, the alcohol is also great for preserving an endangered part of Hawaiian culture: ancient heirloom Hawaiian sugarcane. I ask Reutner why cane needs preserving.
He explains that things went south for the sugarcane industry when land started becoming more valuable for real estate than farming. "The plantations were failing, unfortunately. Right now we live in quite literally a post-sugar commodity world for the first time in 200 years. The last mill closed in 2016. What do we do?" he says.
"They're hard to grow, there's less sugar involved. They weren't used for commodity sugar. These canes aren't awesome for making table sugar. They're really juicy, they're a little fragile, they grow off all hemorrhaging, but it's the flavors that we're interested in."
Hawaiians have been using sugarcane well before KōHana founders Jason Brand and Robert Dawson put out their first batch of rum in 2014. Cane played a part in drought prevention, medicine, windbreaking on farms, and even love.
"There are three canes used for a love magic ceremony. There's actually three different ceremonies, but they're all grouped under the name hana aloha," Reutner says. " Hana means work, aloha means love. The idea is that it's a work of love, or quite literally 'love magic.'"
Reutner points out Papa'a, a cane used in weddings to promote long-term love. He calls Pilimai the lust-related cane, a traditional Viagra that could help somebody dig you.
"This cane is really interesting. You see this waxy white thing on it? The name of this cane is Kea, which means 'white.' It's not actually named for the waxiness on the outside; the inside of it is paper white inside a well," Reutner says, grabbing a stalk. "It was Kamehameha's favorite cane. It was found on almost every island and it's probably the most famous of all of the Hawaiian plants for sugarcane."
Then there's Manulele, from which the distillery takes its name.
"Make no mistake, Manulele is the reason we fell in love with Hawaiian canes," Reutner says. "Manulele is 'flying bird,' and it's thought to be able to keep love together [through] the distance."
Today, Manulele Distillers is on its way to becoming the largest sugarcane grower in Hawaii.
"It's equal parts awesome for us, but it's also sad because you're talking about the death of a really large portion of modern Hawaiian history."
Back on the awesome side of the spectrum is the rum itself.
In an effort to keep the environment in mind, Manulele forgoes putting down plastic to prevent weed growth in the fields—as the farmers who operated the land before them did—and uses sugarcane bagasse (the stalk fibers leftover from extracting cane juice) instead.
The team harvests the cane by hand using machetes, then hand-feeds the stalks through a cane crusher ASAP.
"If you juice a fresh apple it will turn brown two minutes later, but it looks really crisp and green at first. Our juice is the same. It oxidizes fast," Reutner says. "To get the best flavor, we try to get it from cut to crush to ferment as quickly as possible." The cane goes from the field to the crush in less than a day, and its juice goes to ferment in less than a minute.
The distilled products either end up bottled or barrel-aged (in a range different casks, like old Woodford Reserve barrels) to perfection. I ask Reutner if terroir plays any importance in rum.
"I would have been dubious of anyone saying yes to that question if we hadn't experienced it," he says.
Manulele used to grow Lahi sugarcane in Waialua near Oahu's North Shore. "Up there you're close to the ocean so you're getting more sort of ocean spray, all of that. The rum was super salinic. It had this salty character to it—it wasn't salty but it had this something about it. Lahi here doesn't have it. There's absolutely terroir."
The bigger flavor differences come into play between the different cane varietals, not where it's from. They have different sugar contents.
"Cabernet sauvignon is not pinot grigio. Canes are the same way. We treat every cane as an individual entity. We do one cane at a time."
As the Manulele sugarcane could bring love back, Manulele Distillers could bring heirloom canes back from their brink of extinction. All you have to do is drink rum. Unfortunately, at this point you'll have to make your way to Hawaii to drink KōHana. Until the tiny operation has more product, Manulele won't be distributing to the mainland.
Reutner puts it in perspective for me. What Manulele makes in its two distillation runs per week, rum operations like Jim Beam and Bacardi could make in two minutes. The mainland aspirations will come to fruition after they've taken care of their own.
"If there is a demand, we should be serving our neighbors and our friends before we start trying to be in New York City or LA or wherever. That being said, within a year, we'll be big enough for that to start happening."