Story by Blair Roberts
Photo by Dana Edmunds
Last October Kaua‘i’s last sugar mill shut down, and the era of cane came to an end on the Garden Isle. Greg Schredder, like so many living on the island, knew the demise was coming—but he had a plan. “I’ve been on Kaua‘i for the past twenty-nine years, and I knew so many families, so many workers who were going to be affected by the mill’s closure,” says Schredder. “I couldn’t just let this happen.”
Schredder had started planning years earlier, in 2001. Watching the foundering sugar industry, he founded Koloa Rum. Rum, Kaua‘i: It made perfect sense. The island had the same tropical climate as the Caribbean and Central and South America, where most of the world’s rum is produced. And it had turbinado sugar—the raw, brown sugar crystallized from pressing cane that is the main ingredient in rum.
There were historical ties as well. When Capt. James Cook arrived in Hawai‘i in 1778, he landed first on Kaua‘i, and in the holds of both his ships were barrels of rum. Kaua‘i was also the first island to farm sugar cane in Hawai‘i (beginning in the 1830s), and it had the first successful plantation—in Koloa (which is Hawaiian for “long cane”).
After Schredder founded Koloa Rum Co. Distillers & Blenders, years went into tasting, smelling and examining more than fifty batches of micro-distilled rum. The company sent people to Michigan State University, renowned for its distillation technology program, and shuffled through bureaucratic paperwork, for rum had never been legally manufactured on Kaua‘i. “We were learning the craft and the business as we went,” says Schredder.
Last year was a turning point. The company—which now has thirty employees and the capacity to produce up to 540,000 liters of rum annually—opened a tasting room and company store at Kilohana Plantation. The rum—dark, white, gold and spiced—became available in Island restaurants and bars and will soon be in liquor and grocery stores across the Islands and, if all goes well, California.
Schredder’s most ambitious plan is to restart Kaua‘i’s sugar cane industry, albeit on a far smaller scale. He’s talked with farmers about using the crop for ethanol production as well as sugar. The bagasse, the fibrous residue left after sugar cane is crushed, can be used to manufacture paper products and building material or burned to produce energy. In the meantime, Koloa Rum has warehoused three years’ worth of partially processed sugar with high molasses content.
Rocky Nago, a bartender at Tropics Bar & Grill at the beachfront Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki, is now pouring Koloa. The dark and white, he says, make a fine mai tai, and he recommends the smooth, nutty white rum for their signature watermelon mojito. Or you can drink the rum neat for a pure taste of the rich legacy of Koloa.