“It all started here,” said Bob Gunter, president and CEO of Kōloa Rum Company.
“It” being Hawaiʻi’s sugarcane industry and “here” being Old Kōloa Town on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i. Kōloa Mill opened here in 1835 and was the first successful sugar mill in the state to run continuously until 1998.
As America’s largest grower of sugarcane in the 19th and 20th centuries, one would imagine locally-made rum, in those days, was flowing out of Hawaiʻi like lava. But it was not. Blame the missionaries for their prohibitionist ways, or the sugar industry for focusing all Hawaiʻi’s attention on sugar export, but the rum industry in the Hawaiian Islands did not fire up until the 21st century.
Today there are nine countries, including 37 states in North America, purchasing Kōloa Rum, named after the Hawaiian word for “tall cane” and the legacy of sugarcane in Kōloa.
Gunter originally moved to Kaua’i from San Francisco to work in sugarcane. Enlisted in a management trainee program, Gunter worked his way through every job on the plantation including cultivation, harvesting, processing and milling to become the director of industrial relations (the equivalent of human resources), spending a decade in the sugar business. Later in his career he established himself in the rum business when he moved to Maui to help build two distilleries, one for rum and one for vodka.
In 2007 Gunter returned to Kaua’i to conceptualize Kōloa Rum Company with a mission to support Hawaiʻi’s sugar industry. The company launched in 2009, after building a distillery in Kalaheo–four miles from Old Kōloa Town–and a tasting room and retail store at the Kilohana Plantation in Līhuʻe. Now a tourist attraction, the land the Kilohana Plantation resides on once grew 22,000 acres of sugarcane and was the estate to sugar plantation manager Gaylord Wilcox, the son of George Wilcox who owned Grove Farm––the parent company of both Kōloa Mill and Kilohana Plantation. For its first year in business, the retail store was the only place you could purchase Kōloa rum.
“Frankly, no one really gave us much chance at succeeding,” Gunter said, referring to spirit distributors in the area.
Knowing it would never be able to compete with giants like Bacardi, the distillery focused on its distillation process and ingredients to produce an artisan product superior in flavor and quality to mass produced rums.
There are three types of sugar distillers commonly use for making rum. Most industrial rum is made with molasses, which is widely available and inexpensive. Molasses is a byproduct of refined sugar, which has virtually no sucrose and is often treated with sulfur dioxide which can leave a chemical flavor in the rum. Sugarcane juice is used to produce rhum agricole, or agricultural rum. The juice has a lower glycemic index and an earthier taste, giving the rum a grassy, vegetal flavor. Kōloa Rum Company uses raw cane sugar, which produces a sweeter rum with caramel with vanilla notes. Gunter believes this makes a smoother, more sippable rum.
A key element that predicts quality is whether the rum distiller uses a pot still or a column still for distillation, the concentration of alcohol. Companies that are mass producing rum, or rum-like spirits, use column stills for a faster, more continuous distillation process that is essentially hands off. Kōloa Rum Company produces rum, one batch at a time by hand, in a 1,210-gallon copper pot still, enabling them to be selective about which chemicals and impurities they can remove and when.
Gunter explains that after the first distillation they discard both the volatile alcohols, or “heads,” and the dregs, or “tails,” which is the sediment filled bottom of the pot distillers often add back into the batch later or save for another batch in order to maximize yield. Kōloa Rum Company only keeps the remaining 800 gallons, the “heart” of the alcohol, which is the sweetest part, and then distills it once more.
After distillation, the rum is blended with pristine water from a 3000-foot-deep aquifer in Kaleheo. Volcanic rock imparts minerals into the water that enhances the water’s flavor.
“You can’t cheat,” Gunter said, referring to the unique process and ingredients of Kōloa Rum, “You can’t cut corners.”
Kōloa Rum Company produces seven types of rum: white, gold, dark, spiced, coconut, coffee and chocolate, plus small-batch specialty rums, such as its Kōloa Kaua’i Reserve, aged five years in American white oak barrels.
Collaborating with local agricultural businesses allows Kōloa Rum Company to run parallel with its original intent. Owner of Lydgate Farms Kaua’i Chocolate, Will Lydgate, brings roasted cacao nibs to the distillery to soak in white rum for 10-12 days. The rum pulls the cacao flavor out of the nibs leaving Kōloa Rum Company with chocolate-flavored rum and Lydgate with rum-soaked nibs to turn into rum-flavored chocolate.
Kaua’i Coffee, a 2,500-acre coffee farm and roaster on the west side, produces a special roast and grind for Kōloa Rum Company. The distillers make a cold brew to blend with white rum for its coffee-flavored rum and Kaua’i Coffee uses the aged rum barrels to create rum-flavored coffee.
In 2012, Hawaiian Airlines asked Kōloa Rum Company to create a Mai Tai for their in-flight beverage program. In 2016, the airline introduced a Kōloa Rum POG (pineapple/orange/guava) rum punch, and this year it introduced a Kōloa Rum Pineapple Passion cocktail. These ready-to-drink rum cocktails are now also available for purchase in retail stores outside of the airline. Kōloa Rum Company has also joined the canned seltzer game with their low ABV (4.5% alcohol) guava, pineapple, coconut and mango seltzers.
When Hawaiʻi became a state in 1959, labor costs rose, and plantation owners began moving their operations overseas. Most sugar mills closed by the 1990s. Initially, Kōloa Rum Company purchased cane sugar from the Gay and Robinson plantation on the west side of Kauaʻi. After Gay and Robinson closed in 2010, it began sourcing sugar from HC&S on Maui, until it too closed in 2018, bringing an end to Hawaiʻi’s sugarcane era. At this point the company was too big to grow its own sugarcane. Gunter said it would theoretically take 450-500 acres of land to grow what they need. These closures forced Kōloa Rum Company to source cane sugar from other states on the continent, but Gunter asserts this was never part of the plan.
“Most of us are homegrown or have lived here for many years. We’re not a bunch of MBAs or venture capitalists that thought it would be cool to go to Kauaʻi and build a distillery. The seed really did germinate here.”
By 2010 bars, restaurants, hotels, and liquor stores in Hawaiʻi were carrying Kōloa Rum. In 2018 Kauaʻi newspaper, The Garden Island, reported Kōloa Rum Company as being one of Hawaiʻi’s fastest-growing companies.
Today, the company has outgrown its 22,000 sq. ft. distillery in Kaleheo and is in the process of building a new location in Old Kōloa Town. The new distillery will be twice the size with an additional 9,000 sq. ft. building for a cafe, tasting room and retail store (the original tasting room and retail store in Līhuʻe will also remain open). There is also a 1915 plantation house on the property they plan to convert into a museum. Once all phases of construction are complete the new location, which Gunter estimates will create 35-45 new jobs for locals, will also conduct distillery tours, tractor rides and sugarcane crushing demonstrations.
Over the years he and his team have curated 40 varieties of legacy Hawaiian sugarcane developed during the Hawaiʻi sugarcane era, including varieties from the first Polynesian settlers and the first variety planted at Kōloa Mill in 1835, which was imported from New Caledonia. On the new property, they will reserve ten acres of land for organic sugarcane production, part as an interactive garden to teach guests about each variety, and the rest for growing sugarcane for small-batch single origin organic rums, which will be grown, harvested, distilled, bottled and sold onsite, bringing the original mission full circle.
Gunter knows it is especially important living on an island to be mutually supportive. On August 26, Koloa Rum Company hosted an online and in-store event to support Maui residents impacted by the recent wildfires. The event raised over $44,000, all of which was donated to local nonprofit organization Maui Strong, to help the Lahaina community.
Visit Kōloa Rum Company on Kaua’i Monday through Saturday 10:00-5:00 p.m. Closed Sundays. 3-2087 Kaumualii Highway Līhu’e, HI 96766, 808-246-8900