Rum Tasting Traditions


When ancient Polynesians set out in canoes on voyages across the Pacific, space on board was precious. Everything they carried had its own particular use, both for survival at sea and for survival upon settling a new land. A handful of plants and animals rode with the Polynesian explorers to ensure they thrived in new homelands.

One of the plants they carried, known as canoe plants, was ko¯, which is Hawaiian for sugar cane. Before European contact, sugar cane was vital as a windbreak to hedge a lo‘i, or taro field. It could be used to sweeten haupia, a native coconut dessert, and was likely used in herbal remedies.

By the time sugar cane was introduced to the Caribbean, the Hawaiian Islands had been growing it for centuries. As Caribbean Islanders learned to distill rum from molasses, the byproduct of refining sugar, Hawaiians had their own practical uses for sugar, which didn’t involve refining.

Sugar refining didn’t start in Hawaii till the 1800s, and even then, rum wasn’t the focus. Foreign investors introduced a new varietal of sugar, and for decades sugar was one of the main exports from the Islands. By the end of 2016, the last major sugar plantation on Maui will close. To some, it seemed like Hawaii’s long history with sugar would die out, its history forgotten.


Rum being distilled at Ko¯Hana and a selection of rums available to taste there.
Rum being distilled at Ko¯Hana and a selection of rums available to taste there.


For at least two local companies, that is not an option. Ko¯loa Rum and Ko¯Hana Rum both grow sugar in Hawaii, and use it to distill world-class rums. As their names suggest, ko¯, sugar grown in Hawaiian soil, is central to each operation. Rum from both distilleries can be found behind the bars at many of the top restaurants in Waikiki.

Both distilleries provide tastings, and Ko¯Hana offers tours of its garden of specialty native Hawaiian sugar cane. There, guides regale visitors some of the uses ancient Hawaiians had for the sweet grass.

One important ritual was hana aloha, a form of love magic.
Hawaiians would use a dark-hued cane called papa‘a to make
a secure, long-lasting relationship. Another type of hana aloha
used manulele cane, for love across longer distances. The
garden at Ko¯Hana features both types, as well as 34 other
kinds of native cane. The distillery itself is Manulele Distillery,
named for the sugarcane that calls on love.

Ko¯Hana’s tasting room.


Ko¯Hana, located in central Oahu, produces agricole rum,
which is made from sugar cane juice, not from molasses. It
specializes in rum made with Hawaiian sugar cane, instead
of plants that were later imported for refining. Each batch
is unique, from one specific type of cane, all grown in one
patch. It makes for distinctive flavors, similar to different vintages
of wine.

Ko¯loa Rum is in Lihue on the Garden Isle of Kauai. It also uses
sugar grown in Hawaii, but it purchases from the last remaining
sugar plantation on Maui. It’s stockpiled sugar to last the
next two years of production, as that plantation will shut
down at the end of 2016. In the meantime, Ko¯loa has started
small-scale sugar cane farming on Kauai and has made rum
with that cane on a small, experimental basis. The cane it
uses was developed by Hawaii Sugar Planters Association in
1965. That cane became popular to grow for its high sucrose
content and adaptability to the Hawaiian climate.


Sugar cane field where Ko¯loa purchases sugar.


Ko¯loa Rum offers free tastings seven days a week on the half
hour from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Ko¯Hana charges a fee for tasting
and tours, and is open Wednesday through Saturday from
10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Look for rum from both companies when
ordering a mai tai while watching the waves at Waikiki Beach.

As with all alcohol, be sure to drink responsibly and do not drink
and drive.