Big things are happening on the small island of Oahu, so hang loose and get all the intel on rising chefs, new restaurants and more at Aloha Nation.
Something is brewing on Oahu. Literally. This past year, the island has seen a spike in craft spirits and breweries, with artisans distilling Hawaii's verdant produce and rare ingredients into boozy liquid aloha more than ever before.
"There is a small piece of Hawaii in each bottle," Ken Hirata of Hawaiian Shochu Company says. "Now drinkers have more opportunities to discover Hawaii from each product."
Before you jump to conclusions, know that what's coming onto the market isn't just gimmicky guava-flavored this or pineapple-spiked that, but carefully made beverages that are putting Hawaii back on the spirits map.
"My excitement isn't just that people are beginning to brew and distill. It's that they are doing it very, very well. Truly artisanal products are now available for bartenders, mixologists revelers and chefs," Kyle Reutner says. Formerly a bartender at The Pig and the Lady, Reutner is also the founder of Hawaii Bitters Company and brand manager for K? Hana Rum.
"From the chefs like Chris Kajioka or Mark Noguchi and mixologists like Dave Newman and David Power elevating cuisine and experiences to the craft brewers at Big Island Brewhaus or Ken Hirata distilling shochu on the North Shore, every aspect of our island food-and-drink scene has blossomed," he continues.
And though many of these products have yet to make it to the mainland, the best are still available bottled (aka ready to be stuffed into your suitcase). Your souvenir game just got better.
? K? Hana Hawaiian Agricole Rum from Manulele Distillers
"The first time we distilled together, I asked Robert when he would be bottling it. He said, 'As soon as it's done aging,'" Reutner remembers of Manulele Distillers founder Robert Dawson. "No one was doing any aged spirits on island, and he didn't even question it. It was and is the right thing to do. I was all in at that point." Then time came this past spring when Manulele Distillers unveiled three types of sugarcane-based rums: Kea, 100 percent manulele sugarcane; Koho, made with lahi sugarcane and aged in Maker's Mark barrels; and Koa, manulele sugarcane finished in Chardonnay barrels. You can see the detail and dedication Manulele Distillers takes with its heirloom sugarcane-based rums, from tapping Stanford scientist Noa Kekuewa Lincoln to cultivate its sugarcane collection to pairing the strains with different aging methods. With soft vanilla and lightly spiced notes, they're perfect for sipping on their own or slipping into your next tiki drink.
? Beers from Lanikai Brewing
Hidden in a Kailua warehouse unit sits this tiny brewery, the buzziest new craft beer maker on the island. "All of our beers use an ingredient from Hawaii or the Pacific Basin," Lanikai head brewer Steve Haumschild says. "There are so many rare and exotic island fruits and flowers that have never been used before, so it seems like more of a crime to not use them!" His team folds delicate pikake flowers, sometimes used in leis, into 808 Imperial IPA that's hopped with tropical fruit hops and infuses the island's iconic drink, POG (passionfruit, orange and guava juice), into a spontaneously fermented sour beer. "We also used wild yeast from the air, so the yeast is even Hawaiian," he adds. Next up for the brewery is making its five brews available to neighboring islands and adding a few more beers to its lineup.
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? Shochu from Hawaiian Shochu Company
"Poi is the reason why I am making shochu in Hawaii now," Hirata, the cofounder, says. Inspired by the pounded and fermented taro, he went on to apprentice under a shochu artisan in Kagoshima, Japan, later bringing the traditional art to the North Shore 10 years ago. Though not exactly new, Japan's national distilled spirit is getting new life in Hawaii. "We do whatever we can to create an ideal environment for shochu, but we let Hawaii take care of the rest," Hirata says. "All the elements of Hawaii including air, water, wind, things you cannot see or feel could be important factors here. The exciting part is we are working with Hawaii's nature." The result is a super-smooth, clean-tasting spirit for sipping neat.
? Beers from Waikiki Brewing Company
Joe Lorenzen's main hobbies are cheeseburgers and beer. After completing his brewing education at the American Brewers Guild, Lorenzen brought his homebrewing to the Cheeseburger Restaurant he manages, making his home at an unused banquet room. Open since just this past March, Waikiki Brewing Company now has eight beers flowing, ranging from malty porters to refreshing Hana Hou Hefe, brewed with strawberries and orange peel. They're currently not bottled, but keep an eye out for canned versions hitting the brewery in about five months.
? Coconut Vodka (and More!) from Island Distillers
Hawaiian moonshine (aka okolehao, an ancient Hawaiian spirit made from ti root) brought Island Distillers local attention, but the real draw is the slightly sweet coconut vodka. Raw and dried coconut macerate in the spirit, lending it a creamy, honeyed flavor, delicious even in a simple vodka tonic. However, the real exciting stuff is just getting started. "Rum is the most democratic of all spirits, whatever you want it to be," Mike McSorley, formerly of Seattle's acclaimed Batch 206 and Island Distillers' brand ambassador, says. Off in Hawaii Kai, they're readying four to six types of rum, from a diesel-y Guyanese variety to one that's spiced, in a new distilling premise, hopefully available by the end of the year to ring in 2016.
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