All of the heirloom sugarcane is hand-harvested by machete.
Contrary to stereotypes, rum isn’t just a drink favored by spring breakers and Captain Jack Sparrow. On Oahu, Kō Hana Hawaiian Agricole Rum takes an unprecedented farm-to-bottle approach with this spirit that has rarely been seen in the United States.
Kō, or sugarcane, first arrived in Hawaii on Polynesian canoes almost 1,000 years ago. For nearly 200 years, sugar was king in Hawaii, but due to increased international competition, the last operating sugar mill in Hawaii closed in 2016. Paying homage to this heritage, Kō Hana Distillers grows 34 heirloom varieties of native Hawaiian sugarcane, and all of its rum is made from individual varietals (examples include Papa’a, which means “burnt” in Hawaiian for its dark purple hue, and Pilimai, a varietal traditionally used as an aphrodisiac). All of the sugarcane is hand-harvested by machete. Just four farmers harvest about four tons of sugarcane at a time, yielding 20 to 25 cases of rum.
Agricole rum, distilled from fresh sugarcane juice instead of molasses, makes up just two percent of the world’s rum production. While there are a few other single-origin cane rums on the market, Kō Hana produces multiple single varietals, and each batch uses a unique varietal that is bottled and barreled as such. Tasting through Kō Hana’s white rum, it’s clear that each sugarcane varietal has a distinct flavor and aroma, from tropical fruit to earthy funk. I swear one smells just like black truffles.
Just 30 minutes from downtown Honolulu, Kō Hana is located in Kunia, with the Waianae mountain range as its backdrop. Sugarcane thrives in Hawaii’s tropical environment and is still grown commercially in Florida, Texas and Louisiana. However, Hawaii will never be able to grow sugarcane and pineapple as commodities again, so for farmers to survive here, the focus must be on quality over quantity.
“You can talk your friends into cutting sugarcane with you once or twice, but it’s backbreaking work,” says cofounder Robert Dawson. Seven years later, he is still looking for a full-time farm manager. “The hardest part of our business is the ag side,” he says. “I don’t think there was anybody growing cane on Oahu for at least 15 years before we started growing it, so there was no labor available. Most guys are out of ag altogether or are working for Bayer [Monsanto] or DuPont Pioneer.”
It was through befriending Dr. Tin Myaing Thein at Pacific Gateway Center that Dawson found Pirawat, a Thai immigrant with a background in sugarcane farming who now heads up Kō Hana’s small crew. Pirawat and his family live in Kunia Village, a subsidized housing development for farmworkers.
“We didn’t even have a tractor at the beginning,” says Dawson. “We couldn’t afford it. I think we did everything the hardest possible way. We were farming those 15 acres for a full year before we had a tractor.” Now, they’ve planted 20 of their 30 acres of usable land, which they are leasing from the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center (HARC), and 2018 is the first year that the business has been cash flow positive.
HARC and ethnobotanist Noa Lincoln were instrumental in mentoring Dawson (who had no background in farming) through the early stages of starting the farm. “HARC has a collection of all the island’s noble canes on Oahu and gave me access to the collection,” he explains. The center also helped guide him on irrigation, fertilization, watering, planting and any potential diseases.
Today, Kō Hana has several partnerships with local Hawaiian food artisans, most notably the bean-to-bar chocolate maker Manoa Chocolate. In a symbiotic — and delicious — example of adding value, Manoa gives Kō Hana cacao nibs to soak in rum to flavor its Kokoleka cacao and honey rum . The nibs are then returned to Manoa and included in a chocolate bar that’s made entirely with Hawaiian cacao and sold exclusively in Kō Hana’s tasting room. Both companies were graduates of the first cohort of Mana Up Hawaii, an incubator for Hawaiian entrepreneurs.
The other primary ingredient for Kokoleka rum is another agricultural start-up: Manoa Honey. They also make the barrel-aged honey sold in Kō Hana’s tasting room. “We’re supportive of all businesses in Hawaii, but we like to work with our neighbors whenever possible and they’re just up the road from us,” says Dawson.
Another supportive neighbor has been the Four Seasons Ko Olina, one of Kō Hana’s first major accounts. Their rum is prominently featured at the resort’s poolside bar in cocktails and as a tasting flight, and executive pastry chef Helen Hong bakes a rum cake using Kō Hana’s golden brown barrel-aged rum. “It’s naturally sweet and earthy,” she says. “Kō Hana’s Agricole rum, made from hand-harvested heirloom sugarcane, delivers on flavor in a unique way that other rums can’t.”