But Why is the Rum Gone?

Map of the 34 ABC Stores in Waikiki.
The ABC Stores of Waikiki. I count 34. Waikiki is about 3 square miles small.

Say what?! The rum is gone??? Just kidding! Rum and Hawai’i are as natural of a pairing as ABC stores and Waikiki. They’re just so damn convenient! The Hawaiian Islands now support seven distilleries that produce rum! Read on about Hawai’i’s sugar cane history or scroll down to link to the distilleries.

Sweet, sweet sugar cane is the basis for making this distilled spirit. Hawaiian-made rums are even more impressive with an understanding of the bizarre history of sugar cane in Hawai’i. Let’s take a look!

When Sugar Cane Ruled

Once upon a time, sugar crops were the driving economic force in Hawai’i. The first settlers of the Hawaiian islands brought sugar cane with them around 600 A.D. It was medicine, food, dye, protection and even fun, with dart games crafted from the sugar cane flower stalks. Pure sugar is the one thing for which Hawaiians did not use sugar cane.

Around 1778, English explorer Nathaniel Portlock of Captain Cook’s crew was the first to experiment with turning the cane into a fermented drink. He used it to brew a beer, which was not well-received by his crew. Bleh. Can you imagine what this tasted like?

Naturally, foreigners figured out how to exploit sugar…

Cut Colorful Sugar Cane from Hawaii
Cut sugar cane, or . There are over 40 varieties!

By 1802, Lana’i was home to the first sugar mill. A Chinese man reportedly started this mill for the sandalwood trade, but it failed and he went home to China. In 1825, a man by the name of John Wilkinson attempted to mass produce sugar in Oahu’s Mānoa Valley, cultivating 100 acres of land. Unfortunately, he died after the first harvest and only one more was completed without his driving force. Good try John, just a little too late in life.

One decade later, Kaua’i supported the first sugar plantation in Kōloa. William Hooper of Ladd & Co. opened the sugar planation, operated entirely by foreigners. By 1838, there were twenty plantations spread across the Hawaiian islands, two powered by animals! The Great Mahele of 1848 was a tipping point for the sugar industry. Up until this point, land was not bought or sold. The aina, or land, was owned by the akua, or gods. Urged by foreigners wanting to buy land and start businesses, this event concretized the concept of land ownership in Hawai’i. Coupled with the requirements set forth in the 1850 Kuleana Act and Resident Alien Act, haoles quickly bought up the land, leaving the maka’āinana, the local skilled workers, with only 1%.

War Changes Things – For Better

Shipping sugar at Kahili Landing. One-hundred-pound bags of sugar in slings were delivered to a ship offshore by hanging them on a traveling trolley. Kilauea Sugar Plantation, Kaua'i, 1912.
At Kahili Landing in 1912, this photo depicts 100 pound bags of sugar being delivered via sling and traveling trolley to an offshore ship.

The American Civil War was a big moment for the Hawaiian sugar industry. The Union boycott against Souther sugar set the stage for exports to the United States to increase 175% every year from 1860 to 1866, with the price rising over 500%. For reference, in 1846, Hawai’i exported 300,00 pounds of sugar. Eleven years later in 1857, 1.2 million pounds were exported. In 1874, Hawai’i exported over 24.5 million pounds of sugar.

In no part of the United States is a single industry so predominant as the sugar industry is in Hawaii”

Ray Stannard Baker, American journalist, historian, and biographer

War Changes Things – For Worse

Seven Workers chop sugar cane fields in a hawaii plantation
Workers chopping sugar cane in Hawai’i

The Civil War had other consequences in the islands. As word spread about Lahaina Sugar Co.’s financial success, the people and newspapers took notice. When the Pacific Commercial Advertiser reported that this company paid more taxes on sugar than the total sum of the king’s salary, power began to shift. This eventually led to the sugar industry implementing tough contract labor laws that left laborers with no power to unionize or strike. Absenteeism issues were handled with “coercive force” and resulted in punishments such as imprisonment on the plantations and hard labor.

Working and Living Conditions

Japanese sugar plantation laborers shown wearing head-to-toe clothing meant to protect them the sun and the centipedes. (Collection of Barbara Kawakami)
Japanese sugar plantation laborers shown wearing head-to-toe clothing meant to protect them the sun and the centipedes. (Collection of Barbara Kawakami)

Life for sugar plantation workers was not easy. Immigrants made the move to Hawai’i dreaming of wealth and opportunity that recruitment campaigns conveyed, ultimately not realizing these intentions. In general, the plantation overseers, or luna, and their appointed haole crew of European Americans controlled the lives of plantation workers. They ensured that the cycle of clearing the land, digging irrigation ditches, planting, fertilizing, weeding, harvesting, and transporting the sugar cane continued to progress. On some plantations, supervisors punished workers with fines or whippings for simply talking or taking a moment to stretch while working the fields.

Disease was common due to poor nutrition and the overcrowded, termite-ridden bunkhouses provided little solace to exhausted workers. If supplied, a one-by-twelve foot plank served as a bed on many plantations. Oftentimes, laborers worked from sunup to sundown, six and a half days a week, for about six cents an hour. Pay varied based on national origin and sex. In 1880, a male Portuguese laborer earned ten dollars a month, whereas a female working alongside him earned just six dollars and fifty cents. Documentation also shows that in Americans and Europeans earned the most, followed by Portuguese and Puerto Ricans, with Japanese earning the least. Laborers were separated by ethnicity to prevent them from forming alliances and gaining power, meanwhile the lunas would pit different nationalities against each other.

Holehole Bushi

Sugar Plantation worker in hawaii carrying a huge load of cane
Plantation laborer carrying cane

To help pass the time in the fields, Japanese workers tailored folk songs from home to depicted their sorrow and strife, the humor of life, and make social and political commentary. In Japanese, bushi means tune or melody. In Hawaiian, holehole refers to the dead leaves of the sugar cane plant. Considered a less intensive job than cutting and carrying the cane, women stripped the dead leaves from the stalks, allowing the sun to reach the stalks and using the dried leaves as fertilizer. Canefield songs contain just four lines of verse. Here are some translated examples:

Woman covering cane seed at the Kilauea Sugar Plantation in Kauai in 1912.
Woman covering cane seed at the Kilauea Sugar Plantation in Kauai in 1912.

“My husband cuts the cane/I do the hole hole (strip leaves)/By sweat and tears/We get by.”

“Hawai’i, Hawai’i/Like a dream so I came/But my tears are flowing now/In the canefields.”

“Wonderful Hawai’i, or so I heard./One look and it seems like Hell./The manager’s the Devil and/His luna are demons.”

“Why settle for 35 cents a day/Doing holehole work/When I can sleep with a Chinaman/And make a dollar!”

This 26-minute PBS story is a fantastic look into holehole bushi from the perspective of Harry Urata, a music teacher who is recording, preserving, and perpetuating this unique form of oral history.

Plantation Boom

In 1875, the Hawai’i Reciprocity Treaty with the U.S. removed the taxes on sugar and other goods in exchange for some land. The U.S. received land on Oahu in the area of Pu’u’loa, better known today for being the home of Pearl Harbor Naval Base. With this tariff lifted, 43 more plantations sprung up in the next five years, totaling 63 plantations by 1880.

The Bad Continues

The success of the sugar industry put a bulk of the kingdom’s wealth and power into the hands of white businessmen. American annexation was highly favorable by businessmen, as governing under U.S. laws would be much more favorable. When Queen Liliuokalani came to power in 1891, she proposed a restoring monarchy powers and extending voting rights of native Hawaiians.

The Overthrow

Queen Liliuokalani sitting on her chair with a feather cloak
Queen Liliuokalani

Queen Liliuokalani’s proposition led to the formation of the Committee of Safety, a group of thirteen disgruntled white businessmen who were worried about their pockets and their power. On January 17, 1893, they prepared to fight for their wish. Businessmen and sugar workers launched a coup d’état on Queen Liliuokalani near her ‘Iolani Palace in Honolulu. Attempts at declaring martial law failed due to fears of escalating violence. One policemen was even shot for trying to stop the spread of weapons amongst the Committee members. The Committee successfully forced her to denounce her throne before any further violence ensued. The Queen surrendered her sovereignty to the United States, stating that they were a “superior force” and would right this wrong. U.S. President Grover Cleveland attempted to have the Queen’s power restored, but the Committee of Safety wouldn’t have it.

Two years later, the Kingdom of Hawai’i crumbled. The provisional government headed by Mr. Dole forced Liliuokalani to formally dissolve the monarchy after she was arrested on allegations of participating in a coup herself. In 1898, the U.S. annexed Hawai’i as a territory and it became the 50th state in 1959.

The End of the Sugar Era

Over 100 years later, the sugar plantation scene has fallen at the same speed that it grew. Due to rising technology and shipping costs, along with increased competition from the mainland and Brazil, sugar plantations no longer operate in the Hawaiian Islands. The last sugar plantation harvested their final crop in 2016.

Impact of Immigration

Although this crop is no longer a mainstay of the local agricultural community, sugar’s impact on the islands is one that’ll endure forever. One notable influence of the Hawaiian sugar era was the influx of immigrant labor, back when Hawai’i was still a kingdom. The immigration began in 1852, when 175 Chinese laborers arrived on the ship Thetis. Workers from Japan, the Philippines, Portugal, Korea, Russia, Puerto Rico, and Norway moved to the islands to tend to the sugar plantations. From 1885 to 1894, 29,000 Japanese immigrants arrived in Hawai’i. By 1900, Japanese made up the largest ethnic group in the islands. Sugar cane enticed enough people to effectively change the face of the Hawaiian Islands; from 1852 to 1923, the percentage of indigenous Hawaiians dropped from 97% to just 16%. This mass immigration set the stage for the multicultural population of the islands today.

Hawaiian Creole English AKA Pidgin

It was also during this period and plantation setting that Hawaiian Creole English, locally referred to as pidgin, evolved. It originated on sugar cane plantations as a means of communication between English speakers, Native Hawaiians, and foreign immigrants. The initial Native Hawaiian pidgin language was molded by Portuguese, American English, Japanese, and other languages represented on the plantations. As children were born on the plantations, they would learn their parents’ language, English in schools, and a mix of pidgin languages amongst their peers. Over time, kids acquired this unique pidgin language as their first language as it grew outside of the plantation scene in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Despite its name, Hawaiian Creole English is not a true pidgin language. A pidgin language is a grammatically simplified means of communication between two or more groups of people lacking a common language. Hawaiian Creole English evolved from various pidgin languages and is based on the English lexicon, but has been adopted by new generations and is demographically stable. While it is a full-fledged language and spoken by more than half of the local population today, English and Hawaiian are the state’s official languages.

Abandoned and dilapidated sugar mill on Kauai
Abandoned sugar mill on Kauai

But, rum fans – have no fear! Local businesses are still growing the traditional varieties of this historically-rich crop and distilling it to perfection.


Hawai’i boasts seven rum distilleries!
Click a logo to read more each distillery.

Koloa Rum Company Logo
Ko hana rum logo
Island Distillers Handcrafted in Hawaii
Kuleana Rum works logo
Haliimaile distilling company logo
Hawaii sea spirits logo
Kolanu Distillers Logo