Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

Amber Waves of Cane

Story by Martha Cheng. Photos by Marie Eriel Hobro.

The love-magic canes had ensnared Robert Dawson. In 2008, while researching biofuels, he stumbled across the botanical records of manulele, an old Hawaiian variety of kō, or sugar cane, once used by kāhuna to cast love spells. Manulele, literally “flying bird,” bound a faraway love. Other hana aloha (“work of love”) canes included pāpa‘a (“hold fast”), which strengthened romantic relationships, and pilimai (“come hither”), used to spark lust.

“As soon as these stories came up about these plants, I was absolutely enamored with them,” Dawson says. Upon further digging, he found references to sugar cane everywhere—in gift-giving, medicine and as a quick boost in energy for soldiers. In Hawai‘i, sugar cane is usually associated with the plantations, but “it was an integral part of the ancient Polynesian culture that went by the wayside,” he says.

Kō Hana takes rum making back to its grassroots, with thirty-four sugar cane varieties grown on its farms in Kunia and Waialua.

Dawson’s infatuation has now spiraled into a living library of thirty-four heirloom kō varieties and a twenty-two-acre sugar cane farm in Kunia and Waialua. It’s not just that he’s obsessed with sugar: He’s using it to make rums from pure cane juice, a style called rhum agricole, versus the molasses-based rums that dominate liquor store shelves. Dawson distinguishes his rum even further by focusing on single-varietal rums to highlight variations in the cane; each bottle is labeled with the harvest date and type of cane used. A walk through the fields showcases fat stalks striped chartreuse and maroon, while others grow spindly and such a deep purple they look almost burnt. In the tasting room a glass of fresh-pressed cane juice reveals grassy and floral notes. Then there’s the flight of four rums offering two different varietals alongside a barrel-aged version and finishing off with a chocolate liqueur made by infusing Kō Hana’s rum with cacao from Hawai‘i Island and sweetened with honey.

Dawson named his rum Kō Hana, which means “work of the cane,” for his love has always been with the plant itself. And if the purpose of love is propagation, then the canes worked their magic on Dawson well.