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A Visit to Manulele Distillers

Visiting Manulele Distillers, makers of KōHana Hawaiian Agricole Rum

Manulele Distillers tasting room entrance

It’s been two years (nearly to the day) since our initial piece on Manulele Distillers, the Oahu-based farm-to-glass distillery making their own agricole style rums from heirloom Hawaiian sugar cane. (If you haven’t read that piece, please click here to familiarize yourself.)

By 2015, Manulele’s founders had spent five years getting from concept to creation, and the results were indicative of a very bright and tasty future. Of course the important piece we missed was actually being there, so I recently arranged to visit Manulele and see firsthand what two more years of hard work and experience had yielded.

To call Manulele an ambitious project would be an understatement of monumental proportions, and yet upon visiting, it’s immediately apparent these folks have doubled down yet again. More cane planted, buildings built out, and they’ve added an aquaponic lettuce farm that’s gravity-fed from a tank full of tilapia. For a state that has 90% of its food flown in from 2,000+ miles away, the lettuce farm is a small but meaningful step toward food independence, and represents Manulele’s commitment to being a truly local product that is both inherently valuable and culturally significant.

Aquaponic lettuce farm co-located with Manulele Distillers

Showing us around the property is Mike Cerda, Manulele’s Tasting Room Manager and wearer of many hats. Mike guides us into the cane fields while he regales us with a diverse set of stories ranging from Polynesian canoe crops to the pitfalls of early twentieth century agronomy. As Mike leads us down a small red dirt road bounded by Guinea grass, banana trees, and noni bushes, the mountains provide a dramatic backdrop when the cane fields come into view.

The road leading to Manulele Distillers cane fields

Upon seeing the heirloom canes, it’s immediately obvious why these are not conducive to modern sugar operations. Oddly segmented and growing in a variety of different directions, mechanized harvesting is out of the question. Diameters vary, but most canes are also much fatter than those we see in the Caribbean, owing to their higher water (and lower sugar) content. Manulele’s fields are rotated among the various cane varietals, and are harvested by hand when at peak sugar content.

Variegated Hawaiian heirloom cane growing at Manulele Distillers' cane fields

Back at the distillery, a four thousand pound load of freshly cut cane arrives at the crusher as Distillery Manager Noah Brown prepares to collect the fresh-pressed juice in a 500 gallon stainless fermenter. To the juice, Noah will add a yeast mixture propagated from a local cacao yeast which will transform the juice into a ~10% wine after about a week.

A tractor delivers a load of cane to the crusher at Manulele distillers

The wine will be fed into the 600 gallon stainless pot and distilled through the attached copper head and four-plate copper column. This once-through arrangement yields a spirit of around 75%-80% ABV. The heart of the run is collected in stainless steel drums and rested for three months prior to aging (or simply proofing in the case of the white rum).

The Artisan Still Designs still at Manulele Distillers

The barrel warehouse sits in-between the still house and the crusher; inside is an assortment of barrels varying in size, age, and provenance. There are 25 gallon new American oak barrels with honeycomb staves, first-fill Bourbon barrels, and even a rogue Scotch whisky barrel. The elevage is managed by Brown, with tasting assistance from Cerda and a handful of other Manulele colleagues. With readiness determined by each barrel’s organoleptic qualities, time in the barrel is less important than how it tastes. That said, most of their aged expressions average around 1 ½ years.

Barrel storage at Manulele Distillers

Whether aged or simply rested, the liquid will eventually make its way into the beautiful square bottles KoHana Rum has become known for. The bottling line is fittingly small but effective for a micro-distillery that sells most of its products in 375 ml bottles. (Manulele does sell liters of their white rum for the on-premise market, however.)

Manulele-bottling-area

Having seen the entire operation, it was time to step into the tasting room, a space whose beauty belies its fortified Quonset hut exterior. Here we are treated to glasses of fresh-pressed cane juice and then a range of the distillery’s current offerings.

Fresh cane juice tasting at Manulele Distillers

Rather than provide tasting notes, Mike encourages us to develop and share our own. Tasting the different Kea expressions from discretely different cane varietals offers a truly unique experience—one may be fruity, while another is more vegetal or anise-forward. My personal favorite among the Kea expressions ends up being the Mahai’Ula, which is bursting with dark fruit flavors like black currant and boysenberry.

Tasting Kohana rum at Manulele Distillers

After tasting several unaged and aged expressions, Mike treats us to some synergistic products that are created with the help of other Hawaii businesses. For example, the KoHana Kokoleka chocolate liqueur is a simple maceration of Hawaiian cacao nibs in their rum, sweetened with local honey. The rum-soaked cacao nibs are then re-purposed to create delicious chocolate that is sold at the distillery. There is also a local coffee aged in their rum barrels.

Having tasted all the delicious products and wanting to bring them back to the bar, we were presented with the option to have our selections shipped home, which was the icing on the cake of this amazing visit. The rum was waiting for us when we got back to the mainland, thus stemming the inevitable tide of disappointment one feels after leaving Hawaii.

Manulele Distillers tasting room exterior

As a rum enthusiast who fell for the distillery sight unseen, visiting only deepened my respect for what Manulele is doing. The grass-to-glass process is something I have called “shelf stable farm-to-table”, and sipping through the various offerings reinforces that notion mightily. Even if you never get the chance to visit, each bottle offers the chance of sensory travel through time and space. Just open a bottle, close your eyes, and you’ll be transported to the cane fields where it all began–pretty magical.

 

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