SPIRITED DAY: Hali’imaile Distillery Maui
This Memorial Day kicks off our series on America’s tropical paradise, Maui. Where better to “drink local”, yet dive into coffee, pineapple vodka, sugar cane gin, pineapple and, yes, grape wine, along with endless cocktails wedged by a pineapple than the Hawaiian islands. Welcome to Wayward Wine.
Maui has a green sea of sugar cane and pineapple-lined hills. But after over a century, the Baldwin sugar cane empire has collapsed. Losing $30 million in 2015 meant 36,000 acres now run wild with canes. They grow like grass and the plant rusts in ruin. People blame everything from South America, to China, to wages, to our shift to corn syrup.
Luckily, sugar canes and pineapples have sugar. Luckier, sugar wants to become alcohol. Thus, we go to drink liquor for breakfast. We stumble into the car and drive from west coast Kihei into upcountry Maui. The canes wave at us through the green valley.
Below a tree-shaded slope, a metal quanset hut and shed sit unassumingly. We check in and hide from sun in their barrel shed. From a family of distillers, the LeVecke brothers hired master distiller Mark Nigbur from Colorado and moved him to Maui.
Mustachioed whisky barrels wink at Maui’s cowboy past.
Hali’imaile’s production squeezes between the corrugated steel arc that once used for painting. White food grade tubs line the center. In each, they variously ferment sugar cane and pineapple.
The sugar cane will grow up into gin and rum. The pineapple will become vodka. But first, once alcoholic, they must transfer into custom stills based on pharmaceutical models. These are pretty sweet. Their glass gets blown in Germany. Heat jackets bring it to boil evaporating alcohol. Then that tall column of silver fibers filters impurities and the cycle continues.
Today, they bubble botanicals and sugar cane into rum.
Hali’imaile even has their own wee bottling line.
A couple large tanks store rum and vodka.
Hali’imaile’s range rests mainly on their pineapple vodka Pau. It is a solid, clear vodka that tastes aptly neutral, but lightly spicy and a bit hot and edgy. I know vodka’s wheelhouse should be smooth and flavorless, but I like Pau’s character. It tastes nothing like pineapple, but something of pineapple’s structure, its reediness, its acidity, hangs on. Very good (4 of 5).
The pineapple vodka also finds its way into expensive barrels from Limousin, France. The staff dally about divulging the aging procedure, but these are clearly quality used barrels and see at least a year if not more: Pau’s original edge tastes halved, as Pau Oaked Vodka now blanketed with dried vanilla bean, light tobacco. Poured neat, this makes a lovely night cap. Very good (4 of 5). We buy a bottle for $36.
We try their Beach Bar White Rum tied to Sammy Haggar (like coconut water, viscous, but warm and round: good 3 of 5) and finish with their Fid Street Gin, which tastes like even more like coconut, dried orange peel and especially of cardamom, finishing with candied vanilla. It is very good (4 of 5), if a bit cloying.
Our biggest fault is being purists. Limited to four tastings, we forgo tasting their flavored range. Other spirits include an interesting experiment, Paniolo Blended Whiskey: a blend of Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and their Pau pineapple vodka. The Maui Moon range features flavored vodkas in a tiki god bottle: Hibiscus Flavored Vodka Pineapple Orange Guava Chocolate Macadamia Nut.
In summation, Hali’imaile makes a wide range of spirits to please different customers. The tour is efficient, informative, and they let the baby tag along. They try to lead with a rebellious, surfer, rocker, masculine image that gets a mit muddled with so many products. But that makes them interesting. This is not a bar, the tasting is limited to an ounce of four items only.