Sugar and pineapple used to be two household words associated with Hawaii, just as we now know it by poke and aloha. Everybody knows about the Dole Pineapple Plantation, but did you know that there is an agricultural rum distillery on the island of Oahu that you can tour for a nominal fee? Ko Hana Rum is an off-the-beaten path distillery nestled in the agricultural farm lands of Kunia on the island of Oahu. What was once an area of Central Oahu that was blanketed with pineapples and sugarcane is now a scenic stop as a small detour on the way to the North Shore, and I’m happy to say that 30 acres of farm land still remain that are dedicated to the production of this magical crop.
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The only other place I’ve done a rum tasting tour before, was Koloa Rum on the island of Kauai. To take a tour of Ko Hana Rum Distillery on Oahu, it costs $25, which includes a tour of their farm and distillery, a tasting of four of their premium rums, and a souvenir shot glass. If you’re a kama’aina (local Hawaii resident with state ID) or military, it’s only $15 per person. If you want to skip the tour and go straight to the tasting, it’s $10 per person, which you can apply towards a bottle purchase.
The Touring Process
Upon arrival, you’ll be greeted with a refreshing shot of sugarcane juice, cold-pressed straight from the stalk into their machine. Immediately upon oxidization the color changes to a more pure yellowish tint, so you can tell the fresh juice from its cloudy pale yellow color. Below you can see that the bottle on the left is a darker, clearer yellow than the bottle on the right, which is more cloudy and pale. The juice on the right was freshly poured as to where the juice on the left had been sitting for around 20 minutes.
The building where the tastings are conducted used to be the general store for the Del Monte Pineapple Plantation, which was constructed in 1906 and survived for nearly 100 years before being officially shut down in 2006. It was a neat feeling to be standing in the very place where plantation workers would get their hair cut or buy a bottle of water or snack before heading back out into the fields to work in the hot sun. I felt a deeper connection because my Chinese ancestors immigrated from China to Oahu four generations ago and worked in the sugarcane fields, so perhaps I was walking in the very footsteps of my great, great grandparents. Now only 30 acres remain today with 34 different varieties of sugarcane.
Your tour will begin with a knowledgeable guide who will walk you through the grounds, including the sugarcane fields overlook to the distilling room where the magic happens.
Most rums are made from molasses, which is the waste of sugar. Very few rum makers use raw sugarcane, but Ko Hana is one of them!
History of Sugarcane
*FUN FACT* During his rule, King Kamehameha planted sugarcane plants along his war path for his soldiers to chew on to keep them hydrated as well as to keep their teeth strong.
“Ko” = Sugar
“Hana” = Work
“Ko Hana” = work of the sugarcane
Today, farmers harvest four tons of sugarcane three times a week; that’s how much it takes to make just one barrel (50 gallons) of rum. Everything at the distillery is local, hand-made and bottled, aged at least one year.
The Distilling and Aging Process
During the aging process, it is common to lose up to 15% of rum to what they call “angel’s share”, which is the seeping of the rum into the wood, like an angel from the heavens is stealing it for themselves (how cute!) Also the humidity of Hawaii’s climate makes the wood expand, causing seepage to occur.
Sugarcane takes between 1.5 – 2 years to grow, and barrels can cost several hundred to $1,000 per barrel, plus the expensive cost of shipping the barrels to Hawaii, so it isn’t a cheap process.
When you return from your tour, the tasting will await and allure you.
There are a total of four samplings, plus their pineapple rum cake (which they also sell separately) and honey tasting from Wahiawa (a neighboring local town.)
The whole process from farm to bottle will be explained to you by their fabulous tasting guides. Each rum tastes different depending on which variety of sugarcane was used. No surprise that my favorite was the very last one; cacao and honey rum.
There’s also a brick fire oven pizza truck in the back where you can order some lunch to soak up the alcohol before driving to your next destination. Below (left) is their menu, and below (right) is a listing of local Oahu restaurants that serve Ko Hana rum.
Visiting Details and How to Book a Tour
- Tours run every half hour from 10:00 AM – 4:30 PM daily
- Tastings last approximately 15 minutes
- Tours last 30 minutes, plus 15 minutes for the tasting portion
- To make a reservation, visit their website
- Walk-ins are also accepted
- Children and families are welcome; instead of rum tasting, children and teenagers under the age of 21 will be given the option to do gelato tasting!
- Don’t forget to bring your ID! Adults age 21 and older will be required to wear a wristband
- Be cautious not to drive straight away after your tasting, as the buzz can hit a lightweight pretty hard (no names, me – thank goodness my husband is 6’7″ and can handle alcohol much better than my half-Asian self) 😉
We found the tour to be quite interesting and learned a lot about Hawaii’s plantation history and the importance of sugarcane to this day. And let’s just say we left happier than when we arrived! Be sure to eat a little something before you taste, because you’ll get a good buzz off of those four samplings! 😉
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