hali‘imaile distilling company: creating hawai‘i in a bottle

Haliimaile DistillingMost of us already know that MauiWine uses pineapples to make their iconic pineapple wines. But did you know Hali‘imaile Distilling Company (HDC) uses pineapples to produce handcrafted spirits? I surely didn’t until I went on an HDC distillery tour at their facility in Hali‘imaile, the heart of Maui’s pineapple region.

HDC is owned by the LeVecke Family, whose history in the spirits industry spans over a half century. For the past 30 years, the LeVeckes have produced brands such as Hana Bay Rum and Whaler’s Rum, giving them ties to the Hawaiian Islands. When two of the LeVecke brothers decided to start their own micro-distillery on the island of Maui, they scoured the country in search of a like-minded master distiller who could help bring their dream to reality. Enter Mark Nigbur, a charismatic and gifted distiller in Colorado, who had made a name for himself in the industry for his unconventional distilling techniques and superior products.

When the LeVeckes met Mark, he owned his own micro-distillery, where he was distilling vodka from pharmaceutical grade glass stills that he designed and engineered himself. It was a match made in heaven, and soon Mark brought his family to Maui to become HDC’s master distiller. These days, Mark works alongside his oldest son Cory, who manages the day-to-day distilling operation.

Tour guide Ariel welcomes our group to HDC, and explains the meaning of the town’s name. “Hali‘i means ‘blanketed,’ and maile is a type of vine that used to grow here when this area was a forest,” she explains. “The maile vine was reserved exclusively for the ali‘i, or royalty, to use during Hawaiian ceremonies. So the name Hali‘imaile means ‘blanketed in maile.’

“Our flagship product is Pau Maui Vodka, which is made from pineapples we obtain from Hali‘imaile Pineapple Company,” Ariel continues. “Behind the Hali‘imaile General Store restaurant across the street there are fifteen hundred acres of Maui Gold pineapples. Our workers pick the fruit at peak ripeness, because pineapples don’t ripen any more after being picked—they just ferment. We send truckloads of pineapple up to MauiWine in ‘Ulupalakua. They use a special bladder press to extract the juice, which they bring back down to us. The pineapples we send up there are ‘topless’ because that’s how new pineapples are planted—using the tops.

“We also make rum for rock star Sammy Hagar. There are currently thirty six thousand acres of sugar cane growing on Maui. HC&S burns the foliage of the sugar to get to the raw cane. Then they run the cane through a press with water to get a sugary liquid, which they then centrifuge to make sugar crystals. Next they add molasses to the sugar to get a caramel-colored turbinado sugar—kind of like Sugar in the Raw, but with a higher molasses content. We go through two thousand pounds of this special turbinado sugar every three to four days. With the sugar plantation set to shut down at the end of this year, we’re stockpiling five years’ worth of sugar.”

We head into the distillery, where it’s hot, humid, and noisy! Ariel passes around a shaker containing the special sugar made just for them so we can taste it. “For our rum operation, we combine turbinado sugar with a proprietary yeast and water,” Ariel says. “After forty-six days of fermentation, we have a mash that’s transferred to stills, where conversion heaters make direct contact with the mash so the flavors transfer to our rum. The mash is combined with boiling water so it condenses and makes a rum distillage with seventy percent alcohol content, or one hundred forty proof. This product is stored in our tanks until we’re ready to bottle it.”

Arien explains the process for Pau Maui Vodka is a bit different from the rum. “We combine pineapple juice with the same proprietary yeast that’s in the rum, and let it ferment for four to six days. Then we run the resulting mash through our stills. The ensuing vodka distillate is between ninety-six and ninety-eight percent alcohol.”

Adjacent to HDC’s tasting room, is a wall of white-oak barrels, each one embellished with a black handlebar moustache, where HDC’s Paniolo Whiskey is aging. “For the Paniolo blended whiskey, we take our pineapple distillates and blend them with Kentucky bourbon, then age it in these barrels until it’s ready,” Ariel explains. “This particular spirit is dedicated to the Hawaiian paniolo, or cowboy. Tattoo artist Billy Crandall designed the label for this product, and the moustaches on the barrels give a nod to his design.”

We head into the tasting room (you must be at least 21 years old to enter), where Ariel introduces us to HDC’s line of spirits. “You’ll be able to pick three of those spirits to taste,” she says. Each of us had been given a plastic bracelet containing three pull-off tabs at the beginning of the tour. “Each tab on your bracelet may be exchanged for one tasting. The tasting is for you and you alone, as Maui County laws don’t permit sharing.”

Ariels tells us HDC’s multiple award-winning flagship product, Pau Maui Vodka, doesn’t taste like pineapple, although it does have a hint of sweetness on the back end. “Next we have Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum, which is a true white rum,” she says. “Because of the way it’s distilled, it has a crème brulèe-type vanilla note, but it’s not a sweet rum. It’s perfect for Mai Tais.” I throw down my first bracelet tab onto the bar, Ariel pours me a sample, and I take a sip. With its tropical notes of coconut and banana, it’s easy to see why The Tasting Panel magazine rated this rum 94 out of 100 points.

I exchange my second bracelet tab for a sample of the Paniolo Blended Whiskey. “For this spirit, we take the high-proof pineapple distillate, blend it with a true Kentucky bourbon, and age it for at least three years,” Ariel says. “It’s really smooth because of the fermented flavors from the pineapple.” I find it has a clean and silky finish, without any pineapple flavor.

I’ve reserved my last bracelet tab for Sammy’s Red Head Beach Bar Rum. We learn that Mark Nigbur, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Sammy Hagar, uses the white rum as a base, infuses it with macadamia nuts, and uses a coloring agent imported from The Netherlands to make it red, since Sammy is the “Red Rocker.” I taste hints of cherry, and find it similar to Amaretto, but better. It feels smooth and velvety in the mouth. This stuff is dangerous!

With the tasting concluded, Ariel cuts off our bracelets, and presents each of us with our very own Pau Maui Vodka shot glass.

HDC’s Master Distiller Mark Nigbur is a genuine artist, who constantly experiments in pursuit of quality, authenticity, and taste. His innovative designs produce pure, clean, and unique spirits that truly are “Hawai‘i in a bottle.”­

–heidi pool

AT A GLANCE…

WHAT •

Hali‘imaile Distilling Company, a micro-distillery producing handcrafted, locally made, authentic Hawaiian brand spirits.

WHERE •

883 Hali‘imaile Rd., across from the Hali‘imaile General Store restaurant.

WHEN •

Distillery tours are offered every 30 minutes, Monday through Friday, beginning at 10am, with the last tour of the day beginning at 4pm. Tours last 30-40 minutes. Cost is $10 per person. Guests under 21 may participate in the tour, but may not enter the tasting room.

HOW •

Reservations are accepted, but are not required: 808-633-3609; http://www.haliimailedistilling.com/reserve_tour

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