The next time you find yourself on the west side of the island of Oahu, do yourself a favor and go get lost in the cane fields of Kunia for an hour or so. The greenery is lush, the air is crisp and clean, and you find yourself taking the time to breathe deep and pause for a moment. After about a mile drive, take a left to reach Ko Hana Distillery, the home of Ko Hana Rum.
Ko Hana started with the passion and vision of Robert Dawson and Jason Brand, who had dreams to cultivate a truly local spirit. They wanted to resurrect native Hawaiian species of sugarcane and create an agricole style of rum that would let the cane shine. Most rums are made from molasses, which is a byproduct of sugarcane. Agricole is typically made in the French-speaking Caribbean islands, and is made from fresh pressed sugarcane juice. The resulting rum is one that is completely different in style from molasses-based rums. By some, the vegetal qualities of the sugarcane can be tasted, creating comparisons to cachaca or even slightly to tequila, based on one’s palate.
Those that invested in the Ko Hana project spent many hours and necessary funds to research the history of the cane, where it came from, and the purposes that it had, be it medicinal, use in religious ceremonies or draught prevention. Everything the native Hawaiians did was with intention, and the sugarcane was no exception.
“When I moved my family to Hawaii to raise my son, I came across the almost forgotten story of Ko, which was so vital to the original Polynesian voyagers who discovered the Hawaiian Islands 1,000 years ago. As a history buff, I was thrilled to uncover each layer of Ko’s story intertwined with that of Hawaii’s, and I embarked on this endeavor to share its rich history and culture with others through our authentic handcrafted rum.”
After many, many years dedicated to research and development, Ko Hana Distillers currently has 91 different species of cane that the team collected, 36 of which are genetically unique, plus 10 different varietals that are currently in production, being used to make rum. The majority of rum that is currently available from Ko Hana is from the Kea species of cane which translates to “white.”
Visitors to the distillery get a chance to walk through the cane fields and see the various species growing in their natural habitats. The farmers who work the fields do so in love and respect for the plant — they choose not to burn their cane, but instead just cut it by hand and let it grow back.
“Ko Hana,” literally translates to the “work of the cane,” and they are doing just that — allowing the cane the best possible conditions to thrive in order to produce the finest version of itself. That way, when it comes time for harvest and pressing, the end result will be a symphony in the glass.
The distilling process is done in the same vein. The fresh-pressed cane is pumped directly into their fermenter, allowing local wild yeast from a proprietary source to thrive once added. The magic is in the heart of the distillation, which is overseen by the meticulous palate of the master distiller, Tyler Johnson. Each species produces completely unique and distinctive flavors. Some being bright, floral and delicate, and others with an almost umami character with notes of mushroom and earth.
Following distillation, some of the juice get the opportunity to see oak, or age in oak casks, which completely change the characteristics of the rum. Ko Hana is doing amazing trials with a number of barrels, from once-used Laphroaig Scotch Whisky casks, to ones that previously held sherry and even chardonnay. The complexity and layers of flavor attributed to the cane, length of time in barrel and type of barrel all contribute to the creativity that this project puts in every bottle.
Kyle Reutner, who is Ko Hana’s brand manager/ambassador and a mixologist for Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival, helps to tell the story and share the love of the cane, every single day. “The terroir, the hands that grow the cane, the integrity and passion that this rum is made with is undeniable. As you open the bottle, you are transported to a field of Kō and making a spirit transportive is probably the most powerful thing you can do in our business.”