Ko’olau Distillery

  • Established in 2018
  • Distilled in Kailua, Oahu
  • The Ko’olau range is the wettest spot on the island, receiving five million gallons of water daily!

Koolau Distillery Logo showing Ko'olau mountain range from the windward side

Old Pali Road is one of only three Hawaiian-island distilled whiskeys. Whiskey distilling is less common than rum distilling here in the Hawaiian Islands. The grainy ingredients for fermentation aren’t grown in bulk like sugar cane (in agricultural history, at least). Another reason for the lack of local whiskey is that it is an aged spirit that enhances in flavor and increases in selling price over time. Basically, the longer whiskey is left to rest in a cask, the better. For a new, small company, the lengthy time required to produce premium products is not an ideal business model. However, two Marine Corp veterans Lieutenant Colonels Ian Brooks and Eric Dill decided the wait was worth the risk!

The Team and The Dream

Brooks, a Marine reservist, and Dill, on active duty, met back in 2001 on Dill’s way home from a combat deployment in Afghanistan. Dill had long wanted to open a whiskey distillery, actively teaching himself the processes over a decade. Alongside 15-year beverage industry professionals Heather and Dan Pence (conveniently Brooks’ neighbors), their talks of one day owning and operating a business together came to fruition, sparked by the right opportunity in Kailua! Ko’olau Distillery values stewardship of the land and its finite resource and supporting the local agricultural community. According to Brooks, they ultimately hope to “pay homage to the idea of what Hawaii represents.”

Ingredients

Three Old Pali Road five gallons American white oak casks for aging and resting whiskey, photo courtesy Ko'olau Distillery
Photo courtesy Ko’olau Distillery

Corn and malted barley are the base of Old Pali Road Whiskey. When it is in season, they source local corn, with much from Waimanalo farms and various farmers markets. Their bourbon-style mash is composed of 90% corn and 10% malted barley sourced from Breiss Malt and Ingredients Company in Wisconsin. Currently, 45% of their bottle is Hawaiian-made. Their goal is to have 100% locally-sourced ingredients. An achievable goal, in time.

The Process

Fermentation

The very green Ko'olau Mountain Range touching the misty sky. Photo courtesy Toby Garden.
Ko’olau Mountain Range touching the misty sky.
Photo courtesy Toby Garden

Fermentation occurs via a sour mash process, similar in style to that of Jack Daniel’s. A portion of their mash is held separate from the prior batch and added to the next batch, similar to using a starter for sourdough bread. The mash ferments in an air conditioned chamber to combat the Hawaiian heat from deactivating the temperature-sensitive yeast. The enzymes in the malted barley break down the corn sugar. This enables the Red Star Distillers Yeast to convert the sugars to ethanol. After seven to ten days, they strain the mash of its solids, with the spent grain repurposed into dog treats and animal feed.

Distillation

Using a small still for distillation, they collect the “heart” of the distillate, the portion ranging from 110 to 160 proof. Dill and Brooks believe this is the purest and cleanest distillate of the bunch. After distillation, the batches must cool down via cold water. They circumvent this potentially wasteful process by using a hydrostatic radiator system that continually cools and recycles the same 50 gallons of water.

Proofing and Blending

Next, water proofs the whiskey down to 43% ABV. Not just any water though. As the distillery name suggests, their water source filters down from the cloud-hidden peaks of the Ko’olau mountains, sifting through volcanic rock until it reaches the underground aquifer. This thirty year process produces high alkaline water, which makes all the difference in taste and mouthfeel. Next, the distillate-water mix ages for at least one month in American white oak casks from Tennesse. Then, it blends with four-year-old Kentucky Bourbon concocted of a similar mash bill. Blending with already-aged whiskeys is their way of getting a product to the market sooner, but I’m happy to note that Brooks and Dills plan to use their own aged whiskey for this blending down the road. The intended distillate is currently aging in wooden casks – and will be until 2023!

The Whiskey!

Co founders and owners Dill and Brooks holding up tasting glasses of their old pali road whiskey
Dill and Brooks offering up a taste of their labor of love.
Photo courtesy Ko’olau Distillery

Old Pali Road Whiskey is a name that sparks local nostalgia. It is a tribute to the “connective artery” once linking the Windward side to town and across the island. The Pali gap in the lowest point of the Ko’olau mountain range, making it the easiest foot route for the first Hawaiians who had no horses, no mules, and no wheeled vehicles. By the 19th century, horseback transportation was common enough that the foot path widened into a road. The introduction of vehicles demanded a second widening of the road. The Old Pali Road is also the sight of the 1795 Battle of Nu’uanu, a significant fight in King Kamehameha I’s wars to unify the Hawaiian Islands. The 1898 road construction unearthed 800 skulls, likely warriors fallen or pushed from the Pali cliff during this battle.

Video courtesy Ko’olau Distillery

Each batch produces 1,800 bottles, with production goals up to 10,000 bottles a year. These labors of love are all hand-labeled, too!

Bottle of Old Pali Road Whiskey costs about $60

Old Pali Road Whiskey, 43% ABV, tastes of corn and wood with a little bite and a molasses-like sweetness.

Future Ambitions

In addition to their goal of producing a 100% Hawaiian-whiskey, Ko’olau Distillery plans to incorporate 10-gallon casks into their aging process soon. These casks from Wisconsin will have custom charring chosen for their colors and flavors, aiming to bridge flavors between traditional Japanese whiskeys and Bourbon.


Address: 905 Kalanianaʻole Hwy Unit 5014, Kaneohe, HI 96744
Phone: (808) 261-0685
Tours begin July 2019