In Search of Hawaiian Rum

17Jan11

[FR : Envoyé special à Hawaii, je cherche un vrai rhum local de qualité.]

Visiting Hawaii, I couldn’t wait to seek out the local rums. Since limited-production high-quality (= high-priced) alcohols of all kinds are in vogue, I was expecting to find some good rum here, taking advantage of the local sugar cane crop and American ingenuity (or at least marketing sense). A little web research brought up 4 brand names: Koloa, Hana Bay, Diamond Head and Maui.

A Word about “Rhum Agricole”

French Antilles rum culture (Martinique/Guadeloupe), which I dig, is a little different from that of other regions. Their rums, known as “agricole”, are made by fermenting cane juice, rather than molasses. There are many good brands. The white rums, even from large producers, are of good quality and relatively interchangeable. The aged rums (amber-colored, stored for years in oak barrels) have more variation and personality, but it’s generally a question of personal preference rather than “good” or “bad”. To name a few, Clément, Damoiseau, Dillon, JM, La Mauny, Saint James or Trois Rivières are all fine.

A Few Words about Drinking Rum

– A mixed drink can hide many defects of the rum (or other alcohol) it contains, although using good quality ingredients is always preferable.
– You can drink a good aged rum straight as a digestif (as you would drink Cognac).
– You can drink white rum in a Ti Punch, as they do in Martinique and Guadeloupe.
– Ti Punch = white rum + sugar syrup + slightly-squeezed piece of lemon/lime, not flooded with citrus juice, no ice please, Paris bartenders please take note!
– Gold rum is flavored with caramelized sugar, but not necessarily aged.
– Dark rum gets a bigger dose of caramelized sugar, as well as some spices. It’s the A-1 Steak Sauce of rums: not for sipping, but important to add flavor to certain recipes.

Research Project Results

Maui [1] Rum (about $18) is particularly bad; avoid it. I tasted the white, gold and dark versions. All three suffer from a lack of sophistication, with candy-like tastes evoking a combination of sugar water and alcohol, with a strange chemical nuance. It’s off the list! (p.s. I was surprised to see positive reviews of this product on some web sites.)

Of the four rums, Hana Bay [2] is the only one readily available in bars. A close look at the label brought a shock: it says “The Celebrated Rum of the Caribbean”. It used to be made in Hawaii (see photo). But the producer went bankrupt and someone bought the name and is filling the bottles with rum made elsewhere. Scandalous! OK, that one’s off the list!

Diamond Head [3] rum proved to be unavailable in stores. Finally, I located it in a bar and asked to see the bottle, which is marked (on the back), “Product of the West Indes”. It’s off the list too!

And finally, some good news. I bought a bottle of Koloa white rum for $28. Nice clean taste, corresponds to what I like in a rum. I called the producer, and in fact, it is “rhum agricole” (see above), rarely found outside the French Antilles. Works great in Ti Punch. Koloa Gold rum is good too, although it is simply flavored with caramelized sugar, not aged. They hope to produce an aged rum in the future. Their products are basically unavailable outside Hawaii, but the Forbidden Island bar in Alameda, California has ordered a few bottles!

Koloa, only in production since 2009, prides itself on using Kauai-grown sugar cane. Ironically, that was the year that farmers stopped raising cane [sic] on Kauai, as the island further abandoned its agricultural past in order to concentrate on tourism. A posting on the web says that Koloa has stocked 3 years’ worth of cane, and is seeking other Hawaiian sources.

[1] Maui is one of the Hawaiian isles.

[2] Hana Bay is a bay on the island of Maui.

[3] Diamond Head is a beachfront section of Honolulu, Hawaii.

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3 Responses to “In Search of Hawaiian Rum”

  1. At this moment, I am enjoying a glass of Clément “Cuvée Homère”, and it is exceptional. This is an aged rum from Martinique. http://www.rhumclement.net

  2. I enjoyed Hana Bay rum on my honeymoon in Hawaii in 1984…even tourist hotel liquor store price was only $5 a bottle back then. (wow Im old). I was very sad to see it had moved, HOWEVER, I’d still check it out because the dark rum is still pretty much as I remembered and I was able to buy it in Honolulu in 2012, so it hasn’t been abandoned by the locals.

  3. P.S. the best rum I’ve ever had was “Green Island” rum from Mauritius (which I actually bought in the Seychelles and Australia).


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