Rum Review: Kohana
Kōhana Rum, by Manulele Distillers
While there are many delicious unadulterated rums made from molasses, when it comes to exploring the pure expression of sugar cane’s potential, agricole style rums deliver in a way others simply cannot, and craft distillers are taking note. A startup distillery’s need for differentiation in the market coupled with rum connoisseurs’ penchant for purity makes agricole style rum a perfect (if risky) play, and when it works it can be magical. Of course growing your own sugar cane is difficult, but it also affords one the opportunity to control production from farm to glass, turning the otherwise scientific process of distilling into a fully integrated agricultural endeavor that resonates with consumers, and provides a sense of place.
One company taking this approach is Manulele Distillers, makers of Kōhana Hawaiian Agricole Rum (Kōhana means “work of the sugar cane”). Located on O’ahu in Kunia, about twenty miles Northwest of Honolulu, Manulele’s fifteen acre site lies in a farming community that was once dominated by a Del Monte pineapple plantation. Manulele’s head distiller and co-owner Robert Dawson’s foray into producing cane-derived alcohol began as a renewable fuels project, but he pivoted to rum once he discovered the potential of the native Hawaiian sugar cane.
Sugar (Kō in Hawaiian) is a canoe crop, brought to the islands by Polynesian voyagers sometime between 300 and 800 AD. Dawson’s research found that more than ninety unique varieties of native Hawaiian cane once existed; alas, forty of those varieties have been lost to time. Nevertheless, with fifty cane cultivars from which to choose, Dawson saw significant opportunities for the creation of unique products with their own unique organoleptic qualities. There is a Hawaiian proverb that says “I ka wa mamua, ka wa mahope”, which means “the future is in the past”. It could very well be Manulele Distillers’ motto.
Manulele initially planted tewlve acres of cane on Oahu’s North Shore, and has planted another fifteen adjacent to the distillery in Kunia. Unlike commercial sugar operations, Dawson and his team don’t burn and mechanically harvest the cane. These heirloom cane varieties are much more finicky than their modern hybridized cousins, and lend themselves only to careful harvesting by hand.
Once crushed, Manulele ferments the fresh cane juice using their own proprietary yeast strain. The beer is then fed into Manulele’s copper/stainless steel hybrid still, which was designed and manufactured by Artisan Still Design in Alabama. From there, the untouched white rum is simply rested and proofed down with reverse osmosis permeate. The aged rum is rested in American oak barrels until the desired profile is achieved.
Recently, Manulele opened their online store, and I was likely one of their first online customers (I had been waiting patiently). I ordered a 375 ml bottle of the three expressions they had on offer: Kea (white), Koho (select), and Koa (bold/brave). Let’s crack them open and see what five years of blood, sweat and tears tastes like.
Kōhana Rum Reviews
Looking at the hand-numbered label, I realize this is Batch 1, Bottle 1 (I think I might keep this one as a souvenir).
The squat square bottles are nothing short of gorgeous. The stoppers are actually glass with a plastic gasket, which take a moment to get used to. Simply cock the stopper to the side in order to remove them rather than pulling straight up and it’s a breeze. Quite elegant, actually.
Also of note on the hand-written portion of the label is the variety of cane used in the batch. In this case, it’s Manulele’s namesake cane variety (manulele is the name Hawaiians gave this type of cane; it literally means “flying bird” so I would assume the cane tassels resemble birds in flight).
Once poured into the glass, the water white rum greets the entire room with aromas of freshly churned butter, olive brine, and earthy white truffle. Diving in deeper, there are aromas reminiscent of some Martiniquan agricoles including a touch of black rubber and ketone.
The rum enters somewhat softly, and there is a huge dose of black licorice and roasted fennel. The anise notes are followed by spicy black and red pepper, and are attenuated somewhat by the buttery notes before dissipating. Subsequent sips seem a bit more watery and I find myself yearning for a bit more ABV, but that is to be expected when one is accustomed to drinking 50%+ agricoles. Still, what is here is quite pleasant—loads of licorice, butter, pepper, and roasted fennel bulb. There is also a hint of natural sweetness that helps to round things out. What is interesting to me is the lack of grass—I can only imagine it’s been supplanted by the anise flavors. The rubber and ketone could be a bit of a turn-off to some, but if you are in the habit of drinking agricoles from the French West Indies, you’ll likely find them intriguing rather than off-putting.
All in all, a pretty fabulous effort for a young distillery cultivating its own cane.
Barrel 1N, bottle 60, manulele cane
43%, $45/375 ml
The Koho exhibits s a deep mahogany color in the bottle, and burnished koa in the glass with bronze and golden highlights. Aromas on initial nosing are more suggestive of a small barrel than the cane: cedar, dusty oak, and pine. Beyond the wood, there is a hint of fruit including citrus peels and dark berries. After the fruit, there is a hint of butter and brine.
As the rum enters, the wood and fruit compete with one another for a few moments before a woody bitterness makes itself known. The licorice so prominent in the Kea now appears with authority, and once the palate is conditioned to the rum, licorice is once again the dominant characteristic within the juice. Along with the licorice, there is a strong sense of charred wood and cinnamon coupled with red and black pepper. There is no grass to speak of, but there are some herbs: namely sage, a hint of basil, and a touch of oregano.
The finish is long with the wood and licorice persisting for quite a while along with a hint of leather and tobacco.
Barrel 1, bottle 22, manulele cane
55%, $75/375 ml
The color of the koa is deep, dark mahogany (or Koa if you like) that persists in the glass.
Aromas are more pleasant than in the Koho, represented by freshly baked rum cake. There is a bit of astringency here at 55%, but it is enticing rather than unpleasant. In addition to the bakery notion, we smell oak and fruit: namely mango and citrus peel. There is also some green apple and pear backed by black cherries and raisins.
As the rum enters, we’re reminded that this is a 55% spirit, but the heat is certainly not intolerable. The oak is the first organoleptic quality we notice beyond the heat, and it’s ample. After the wood, the licorice is once again front and center, along with loads of pepper and herbs. We again have cinnamon and a bit of allspice, followed by citrus peels and black cherries. The dark fruit notion continues with plum and raisins. After the fruit comes a bit of leather, and as the long finish plays out, we are left with fruity esters and oak. Delightful.
The Kōhana distillate is high quality, and there is clearly a lot of aloha put into these products. The flavors bear a resemblance to agricoles from the French Caribbean, and yet they remain unique.
It’s terribly expensive to conduct this type of business in Hawaii, and the pricing shown here certainly indicates that. But fortunately for Manulele, agricoles have always commanded a higher price in the marketplace than molasses-based rums, and other small distillers such as Tuthilltown Spirits have managed to be quite successful selling half bottles of artisanal spirits.
It’s my hope that the market will embrace these innovative new products and enable Manulele to grow and continue innovating. I for one can’t wait to see what effect extended aging has on the rum, and look forward to tasting rums made from other ancient cane varieties.
I should note that Manulele recently completed construction on their tasting room, so be sure and visit when you’re on O’ahu. Tours are given on Wednesdays between 10:00 am and 3:00 pm. Private tours are also available by request.