Our Modern Kaua‘i Rum Runners

Koloa Rum Co. staff (from left) Bob Gunter, Jeanne Toulon, Elizabeth Oceguera, Eric Fischer, Danny Good and Jason Lagmay. Daniel Lane photos

The roots of Kaua’i’s sugarcane industry were planted when Koloa Sugar Co. began production in 1835. By 1907, Kaua’i had nine sugar plantations with more than 70,000 acres dedicated to sugar. In the midst of this thriving economy, plantation workers learned how to turn molasses into rum.

These pioneering spirits inspired a new line of premium Hawaiian rums designed by Koloa Rum Co. Aiming to keep Kaua’i’s sugarcane roots alive, the company’s goal is to contribute to Kaua’i’s economy in a sustainable way.

“We are working very aggressively to continue to grow cane to make our rum,” says Bob Gunter, president of Koloa Rum Co. “Sugarcane (on Kaua’i) is important because it’s part of the fabric of the island.”

Currently, Koloa Rum Co. uses raw crystal sugar from the final harvest of the Gay and Robinson Plantation. The sugar is blended with naturally filtered rainwater. It is these uniquely local ingredients that are twice distilled in single batches by Kaua’i’s first commercial distillery.

50-gallon copper still

Gunter and his team ferment the sugar crystals for up to seven days before adding the mixture to a 1,210-gallon vintage copper pot still. The distillation process uses seven plates to capture the essence of fermented sugarcane, or rum. “The beauty of having the column with the plates,” says Gunter of the “reflux” process, “is that we have a higher-proof, better-quality alcohol.”

In a nonstop operation, major rum companies constantly push fermented liquid into a still. Extracting all the liquid, they bottle what’s called head, tail and heart.

“We don’t take the first little bit of alcohol that comes through,” says Gunter, explaining a step in their proprietary process. “That’s known in the business as ‘heads.’ We separate the heads and the tails and we capture the heart that’s the best part.”

Eliminating the harsh tasting “head” and the dregs of the “tail” could be why Koloa Rum Co. has been winning awards since it’s been up and rumming.

In September of 2009, it began distilling White, Gold and Dark rums. Less than a year later, it won four awards at international rum competitions.

Koloa Rum Co. at historic Kilohana Plantation

Last May, it competed in the Rum Renaissance Festival in Miami the largest rum event in the Western Hemisphere. Competing against 80 rums, it took two awards for its Kaua’i Dark Rum including a gold medal best in class, and a gold medal. It also won a bronze for its Kaua’i Spice Rum, which launched just two months before the competition.

Eventually, the Gay and Robinson sugar supply will run out. Gunter is working with local farmers to ensure sustainable sugarcane production, and will experiment with making rum from cane juice, extracted right in the field.

“We just started some very serious trials,” says Gunter, noting that using cane juice will leave a minimal carbon footprint. “We are very excited about the prospects of using cane grown on Kaua’i to continue to make our rum.”

If you’re entertaining visitors, stop by for free daily tastings at the Kilohana Plantation in Lihu’e. It’s a spirited way to spend time together, and its Kukui Brand Mai Tai mix, guava Jelly, T-shirts and rum make great souvenirs. But if you need to stock up your personal stash, Costco also carries its rum.

The four rums: spiced, dark, gold and white. Daniel Lane photo

“We’re really happy that we can play a role in bringing sugarcane back,” says Gunter. “One of the reasons we wanted to start this business was to keep cane growing, employ local people, add to our economic diversity and to create products that local people can e proud of.”

Koloa Rum Co. 246-8900 Tasting Room 3-2087 Kaumualii Hwy., Lihu’e

KoloaRum.com mlane@midweekkauai.com