DISCOVER HAWAII'S INDIGENOUS DRINK

Tucked away on a 2-acre plot at the base of Koko Crater, Island Distillers quietly goes about its business of crafting the small batches of spirits it’s been making since 2008. 

Owner Dave Flintstone moved his distillery five and a half years ago from Sand Island to Hawaii Kai, where he grows some of the sugarcane he uses in creating his Hapa line of premium craft spirits. He built the manufacturing facility and tasting room himself (with a little help), and word is slowly getting around the Hawaii Kai community about this hidden gem behind Henry J. Kaiser High School. 

I had been meaning to check it out anyway, but when a postcard came in the mail offering a free tasting, I persuaded the hubby to accompany me since he’s more of a drinker than I am. It didn’t take much arm twisting – who says no to day-drinking on a weekend, really – and off we went.

Island Distillers
Koko Crater provides a majestic backdrop to the Hawaii Kai distillery.

You’ll want to use GPS to get to Island Distillers. After you drive through a residential area, you’ll get to Pakala Street and drive past Kaiser on your left until you hit almost the end of the street. (Keiki and Plow, a family-run organic farm that offers events for little ones, is at the very end). To your right you’ll park in front of a brightly colored warehouse with the Island Distillers logo; grab a spot and head to the left of the building where you’ll see the gate entrance.

Island Distillers
Don’t worry about the dogs barking as you open the gate to the distillery – they’re all very friendly.

A sign on the gate alerts you that you’ll be greeted by “the girls” – Ruby, Betty, and Veronica. These friendly doggos walked us past the distilling warehouse up to the tasting room, which had a welcome mister going full force to cool us as we entered. To the left is the bar, with bottles of the current inventory adorning the shelves, and to the right is a rack of T-shirts and tank tops in a rainbow of colors. (Heads up ladies, the tank tops run small, so you’ll want to try them on in the restroom before purchasing.)

Island Distillers
Island Distillers owner Dave Flintstone offers 30-minute guided tastings at his Hawaii Kai distillery.

We then met Dave, a casually dressed fellow behind the bar whose easygoing manner matched his beach attire. Don’t be fooled by the laidback demeanor, however; this savvy businessman clearly knows what he’s doing as a distiller and a marketer, judging by the local and national press he’s received over the years. 

In person, he’s droll and witty as he leads you through the tasting of his vodkas and a specialty native drink that was first made in 18th century Hawaii – more on that later. The tasting includes sips of undiluted spirits, and then a tasting of simple cocktail blends using each. As I mentioned, I’m not much of a drinker but when I am out and about, vodka is my preferred alcohol – but usually in a cocktail rather than neat. As such, I enjoyed the blends a LOT … unlike other brands with aggressive flavor profiles that refuse to share center stage  in a cocktail, his vodka blends dangerously easily with say, guava juice or even root beer (yes, root beer – you have to try it with the regular vodka, you’ll become a believer).

Island Distillers
Island Distillers owner Dave Flintstone brought the lessons he learned in Caribbean distilleries and production facilities to Hawaii, where he produces his craft vodka, rum and okolehao spirits.

While his most popular seller is the coconut vodka, the latest additions of Hibiscus and Hawaiian Chili Pepper follow closely after. He sources the flowers for the Hibiscus vodka from Egypt – which has been brewing hibiscus tea since the time of the Pharaohs and is known around the world for the quality of its flowers. “Surprisingly, Hawaii doesn’t really have a hibiscus crop. Yellow hibiscus is the state flower but it doesn’t really taste very good,” Flintstone said. 

For the Hawaiian Chili Pepper vodka, which has been on the shelves since last November, Flintstone uses 10 and a half pounds of peppers in each 550-gallon batch that he distills. The fruit, which comes from the Big Island, ranks as high as habanero peppers on the heat scale. I found it very spicy and smoky from start to finish, but the hubby only noticed the heat as it went down. Add tomato juice to it, though, and even I could sip it as an unadorned Bloody Mary.

Island Distillers
Okolehao is made with sugarcane and the root of ti plants sourced from the Big Island.

Because that last vodka is so powerful, it’s the last drink you’ll sample – right before that, though, is the Okolehao, Hawaii’s only indigenous distilled spirit. Its name comes from the iron pots that English sailors used as stills in the late 1800s to produce a beer made from the roots of the ti plant. Sugarcane was later added and it became so prized by Hawaiian royalty that King David Kalakaua reputedly had his own distiller.

At 100 proof, I thought it would knock my slippers off, but I found it quite smooth – even easier to swallow than the unflavored vodka. It’s got a slightly earthy flavor – Flintstone describes it as vegetal notes with hints of banana. While I didn’t get the banana, I enjoyed it enough to buy a bottle that I’ll save for when I want to wow a future dinner party with a unique Hawaiian libation.   

Island Distillers also features rum in its beverage portfolio, but Flintstone is out of stock while he awaits some new equipment. He hopes to have it back on the shelves by the end of the year; in the meantime, he’s experimenting with infusing his rum with different flavors such as bananas and Kona coffee. The same goes for the vodka – I’d love to come back to taste lilikoi and guava flavors if they work out. 

Misters keep the lanai cool while guests enjoy the soothing sounds of a cascading waterfall that sits below a field of sugarcane. Island Distillers also sources sugarcane from Louisiana to supplement its homegrown crop.

Flintstone also is working on expanding the tasting room with an outdoor lanai that groups of up to 50 could use for events. He’s built an outdoor oven, which I’m hoping means oven-fired pizza at some point. Even a limited menu would be a great way to extend the experience beyond the tasting, which takes about a half hour. Until then, you can always head to one of the restaurants in the area – here’s a roundup of new dining spots in East Oahu.

WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

The distillery is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday, and the 30-minute tastings are offered on the hour from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. You can book online or just walk in – it’s $15 per person and you get a 15% discount on bottle purchases after the tasting.  

Can’t make it to the tasting room but want to get a bottle? You can purchase limited selections at stores including Foodland, Safeway and Tamura’s, or you can buy bottles online on the website.

Island Distillers
577 Pakala Street
Honolulu, HI 96825
Ph: 808-492-4632
www.islanddistillers.com