Kauai’s Farm-to-Flask Movement, Led by Local Small-Batch Distillers

Koloa Rum and Nani Moon mead highlight locally sourced ingredients.

Kauai’s natural beauty is in itself intoxicating. But add to that a splash of mead and a shot of rum, and guests to the Garden Isle may never want to leave.

Since the first batch of Koloa Rum was released in 2009, the micro-distillery has won national accolades and the palates of rum aficionados from across the country. Meanwhile, Nani Moon Meadery has created its own buzz by fermenting a honey-based wine that’s produced by a self-appointed “Queen Bee,” at least that’s what it says on her business card.

While the concept of farm to fork is already well-established, the farm-to-flask movement is just beginning to emerge. In the early 2000s, Bob Gunter was working on two distillery projects on Maui, which he says “whetted his appetite and interest in the distilling industry.”

Koloa Rum
Koloa Rum produces a variety of styles from light to dark. (©Isaac Arjonilla)

“Six years into this and things are going well and we’re continuing to expand,” said Gunter, Koloa Rum’s president and CEO. “Our distribution has considerably increased and, in our fifth year, we were nominated and recognized as among the 50 fastest growing companies by Pacific Business News.”

Growth is a relative term for Stephanie “Queen Bee” Krieger, whose production is limited to the number of hives on the island. After all, honey to mead is what grapes are to wine—the essential ingredient. She also relies on farmers and friends to supply the other natural, GMO-free, organic ingredients, including lilikoi, star fruit, mountain apples, guava and pineapple.

“We were being sustainable long before the term became a buzzword,” said Krieger, who officially opened her meadery in 2011. “We are sourcing from our local beekeepers and farmers that we know individually."

Sometimes referred to as “micro-boozeries,” small-batch distillers have popped up across the nation. Federal permit data show that just between 2008 and 2012, the number of craft distilleries more than doubled to 471. The American Rum Association, a group of small craft distillers has 19 members—including Koloa Rum.

Rum casks
Koloa rums are distilled twice in a vintage 1,210-gallon copper-pot still then aged in barrels. (©Isaac Aronjilla)

“It’s a close-knit industry,” Gunter asserrted. “It’s competitive but there’s an appetite out there for these types of products.”

Koloa Rum’s portfolio includes Kauai White, Kauai Gold, Kauai Dark, Kauai Spice and Kauai Cocount. What differentiates Koloa rums from the competition is its locally sourced ingredients: “tall cane” sugarcane and the runoff waters from nearby Mt. Waialeale.

“We distill and blend one batch at a time,” Gunter said. “Handcrafted spirits require a different process—one which allows for greater control and superior quality.”

Krieger also believes that craft distilling offers a chance to showcase the island’s natural resources. She has been producing honey wines for 13 years, tinkering with the recipes along the way.

“I do a lot of cooking so I am well schooled in flavor profiles,” Krieger said. “I produce six commercial varieties but I also have smaller, five-gallon experimental batches, which yield only about 12 bottles.”

Wine bottles
The Nani Moon collection of honey wines ranges in flavor from sublte to bold. (Courtesy Nani Moon)

The Nani Moon collection ranges from the light to bold. On the light side is Laka’s Nectar—with ohia lehua blossom honey and mountain apples—or Pineapple Guava Sunset. Bolder meads include Cacao Moon, Winter Sun—wildflower honey, star fruit, lilikoi—and Ginger Spice—wildflower honey, star fruit, ginger, winter spices.

“There are just so many styles,” Krieger noted." “Some taste more like wine and others are trending towards more craft-like beers.”

Gunter predicts that the new wave of mixologists will lend more exposure to small craft distillers like Koloa Rum. “They take their craft seriously,” he says. “Our rums are versatile; they can be used in cocktails or they can be sipped on over ice. We didn’t want to mimic other products. We’re working hard at it.”

Representing over 135 distillers of all sizes, the Distilled Spirits Council acknowledges that there is a growing global demand for U.S. spirits, with exports reaching an all-time high of over $1.5 billion in 2014, the eighth consecutive year that exports of American-made spirits exceeded the billion dollar mark. 

“By continuing to expand the industry’s market access around the world, we can build upon the recent export growth, which is a victory for large and small distillers–and for the U.S. economy as a whole,” said Distilled Spirits Council president and chief executive officer Peter H. Cressy, who noted that American spirits are now exported to as many as 130 countries around the world. “We are proud of our American-made spirits and know that adult consumers around the world are ready and willing to buy them.”

With distribution already in place across 12 states, Japan, Canada, Australia and France, Koloa Rum now shares shelf space with the major brands. Meanwhile, Nani Moon Meadery can be found at retailers across the major Hawaiian islands.

“We’re still a work in progress and I’m still having to educate people about mead,” Krieger asserted. “But meaderies are growing in numbers. In 2009, there were 65 meaderies and today there are 200 of them. It’s the fastest growing sector in the craft brewing industry.”