Crafting Aloha Spirit with Fresh Ingredients

Written by Marta Lane
Photographed by Trish Barker

Cocktails made with fresh ingredients burst to life when using produce from Hawai’i’s farmers’ markets. Ripe fruit and pungent herbs intensify color and flavor and well-made spirits add complexity. Rum is popular in the Hawaiian Islands, probably because of the Mai Tai cocktail, which is made with both white and dark rums. Because today’s Mai Tai drinker purses their lips at canned pineapple juice, we’ve included recipes with fresh ingredients and locally-made rum.

Kōloa Rum Company is a single-batch distillery located near Kalaheo on the island of Kaua‘i. Since opening in 2009, they have won 21 medals, including four this April at the 72nd Annual Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America Conference in Florida. All five award-winning rums — Dark, Spice, Gold, Silver and Coconut — are made with Hawai‘ i-grown sugarcane and pure Kaua‘i mountain rainwater.

All distillation, blending, bottling and packaging is done exclusively on Kaua‘i. The distillation process incorporates a circa 1947 copper pot still and column with seven plates that captures the essence of fermented sugarcane, or rum, resulting in a cleaner product. “The beauty of having a column with plates is that we have a higher proof and cleaner distillate, essentially better-quality alcohol,” explains President and CEO, Bob Gunter.

Today, the team at Kōloa Rum is also growing sugarcane, and currently experimenting with making rum from cane juice extracted in the field. “We’re very happy to be playing a role in bringing sugarcane back to Kaua‘i, “ says Gunter. “One of the reasons we wanted to start this business was to keep cane growing, employ local people, add to our economic diversity, and create products that local people could be proud of. “

Farmers’ markets in Hawai‘i are a gold mine for flavor because they’re loaded with exotic fruit that was grown just a few miles away and picked that morning, at the peak of ripeness. During the summer, stalls spill with passion fruit, mango and pineapple. Throughout the winter months and into spring, you’ll find an enormous variety of citrus. Don’t deny an orange with rust-colored skin; it just means it wasn’t sprayed with pesticides. You might not easily find an ugly looking orange in a store, but they are worth seeking out at farmers’ markets because they yield about five times more juice.

There are approximately 100 varieties of Hawaiian citrus that can be found at the markets. Besides many types of oranges, you may see kumquats, tangerines, mandarins, tangelos, several types of grapefruit, pomelo, Tahitian limes, Key limes, Kaffir limes and small, orange-colored calamansi limes. There’s also pink variegated lemons, Meyer lemons, Buddha’s hand and Eureka lemons. If you want it to last all year, freeze fruit juices and purees.

Handcrafted cocktails begin with muddling. To do this, place ingredients such as lime wedges, fresh herbs, or roasted chili peppers in a metal shaker, and press with a muddler to extract flavor. Fruit size and sugar levels vary based on variety, where it was grown and the season. After mixing juice with a sweetener, such as simple syrup or honey, taste your cocktail mix. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments. It’s the only way to achieve a sublime balance between sweet and tart.

Once you’ve muddled everything, add spirits and ice cubes. When making ice cubes, you can add additional flavor with thin slices of fresh ginger and fresh coconut water, both of which are available at Hawai‘i’s farmers’ markets. Ice studded with flecks of Hawaiian chili peppers adds spice to Bloody Marys. Large ice cubes take longer to melt, which is especially good in sub-tropical climates.

If you want to shake like a bartender, master your shake-face. After adding rum and ice to the shaker, top with a pint glass, cocked at a slight angle. Tap the top until you hear a slight pop, indicating a seal. Tip the shaker over your shoulder, holding the glass away from your face. Plant your feet firmly on the ground, hip distance apart and shake firmly until the metal looks chilled. To break the seal, tap where the shaker and glass bend toward each other. Set the glass aside and place a cocktail strainer over the shaker. Pour into glassware.

People drink with their eyes first, so take a look at your glassware and choose one that makes sense. For example, the warmer a drink gets, the sweeter it gets, so they’re best served in small portions using glasses such as champagne coupes. Garnishes add an elegant touch, but make sure they’re edible. Choose organic to avoid pesticides and know that some flowers, such as plumerias, are toxic. Safe floral garnishes that offer a touch of Hawai‘i include a spray of purple ti flowers, pineapple leaves, spicy nasturtiums, exotic orchids and creamy coconut palm flowers. Twisting a strip of citrus zest releases tiny drops of essential oils over the glass and sliding it in afterwards adds additional flavor and color.

Other garnishes include toasted coconut, chocolate covered Kona coffee beans, or wedges of fresh pineapple. Compostable paper straws (which are available online) add whimsy and color. When hosting a cocktail party, snip herbs from small pots as you make drinks, or display whole fruit with signs that highlight which farm they were grown on. Have fun and experiment because making cocktails with Hawai‘i-grown ingredients is a spirited way to play with local flavors!