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Keeping local spirits high

A guide to locally made and bottled liquors, with local ingredients

Islands and rum go together like mai tais and puns (i.e., Mai Thai, Morimo-tai, Once Upon a Mai Thai). And yet, until recently, no company had taken advantage of Hawaii’s (albeit dwindling) sugar legacy to make the No. 1 staple of any tiki bar: rum.

Today, there are three rum distilleries on the Islands, and while none may replace Bacardi and Myers’s Rum at local bars, they’re worth a shot or being mixed into your next mai tai.

Local distillers also produce more unusual spirits, such as ‘okolehau and vodka distilled from pineapple. So if you’ve fallen off the eat-local bandwagon because you prefer to drink your meals, get ready to jump back on.

Haleakala Distillers

Haleakala Distillers produces light, gold and dark rums, as well as a 155-proof rum, all made from Maui sugar.

It’s recently begun producing ‘okolehau, the first spirit said to have been produced in the Islands. Originally made with ti root as the main ingredient, it’s known as Hawaii’s moonshine and is about as palatable…at least before Haleakala’s product, which is made with fermented ti root, sugar and flavoring, and then distilled.

The folks at Haleakala Distillers have toned down the alcohol level to 40 percent (as opposed to the 100 percent alcohol content of some homemade ‘okolehau), and its vanilla and coconut flavors are more similar to a golden rum than the ‘okole-kicking variations of the original ‘okolehau.

(According to an employee at the distillery, the origin of the term “‘okolehau,” or “iron butt” is as follows: ‘Okolehau was at one time made in the melting pots used to render blubber. When the pots were placed side by side, they resembled ‘okole.)

‘Okolehau and rums around $20 at Tamura’s Fine Wines and Liquors, 3496 Waialae Ave., 735-7100; and The Liquor Collection at Ward Warehouse, 1050 Ala Moana Blvd., 524-8808

Old Lahaina Rum

Old Lahaina rums–light, gold and dark–are distilled in the former Paia Sugar Mill and come in bottles of the sort Jack Sparrow might have found washed up on the beach. The antiquated theme extends into the distillery, which uses 500-gallon steam-fired pot stills originally built for the New England Rum Company in 1946. The rums are pleasant for mixing in cocktails, especially given the price.

$15 at ABC stores across Oahu and Maui, [abcstores.com]

Koloa Rum

Greg Schredder, the owner of Koloa Rum, had the foresight to buy a three-year supply of sugar before Kauai’s last sugar plantation closed in 2009. Once he goes through his reserves, he plans to work with independent growers to get his sugar, thereby keeping his product 100 percent Kauai. The light, gold and dark rums taste smoother than they smell; the aroma is akin to rubbing alcohol.

About $30, available at Tamura’s and The Liquor Collection

Pau Maui Vodka

The absence of locally grown grain hasn’t prevented entrepreneurial spirits from making a local vodka; Pau Maui Vodka uses pineapple to make its liquor. But if you’re expecting a pineapple martini in a bottle, sip again.

All traces of pineapple aroma and taste are removed through the production process, so Pau tastes like pretty much any other vodka. Whereas at one time this vodka was marketed as an ultra-luxury spirit, going for $100 a bottle, the price is now a more palatable $30 a bottle.

$30 at The Liquor Collection

Mauicello

A Maui-made limoncello, this sweet, slightly syrupy liqueur tastes and looks like the distillation of pure lemon. Though the base is an imported spirit, the lemons and sugar infused into the alcohol are Maui-grown.

Mauicello is not yet available on Oahu, but Whole Foods expects to carry it soon.