Imagine a place where there’s a great party on a sun-kissed beach. Do that and you’re probably thinking about Hawaii. If there is any justice in this world, Hawaii with its beaches and its sugar fields should be the source of similarly beautiful rum. Bringing reality to the vision, Koloa Rums originate in the garden island of Kauai made with all Hawaiian sugar cane. Like many microdistilleries, they work with local produce and blend their rum down with local spring water (filtered by volcanic rock, naturally). In the case of Hawaii, “local” takes on a whole different meaning since local is almost a necessity given the remoteness of the islands.
Here at Proof66, we received a bottle of both their white rum and their gold rum to try. The white is filtered and bottled clean and pure while the gold gains its color from caramelized sugar rather than barrel aging (which may irritate some rum purists but delight many who love to mix drinks). Positive reviews from Got Rum Magazine recommended cocktail s with fruit juices, which seemed appropriate for a Pacific island rum and we were happy to oblige.
But first, we always taste neat and straight. The Koloa rums have very, very subtle aromas compared to other popular and big market rums (say, Bacardi silver that we were using here as a point of comparison). On the palate, it has particularly distinctive flavors. It’s a light pattering of a dance step that speaks to sugar and spring. What the hell does that really mean, anyway? It means that many rums (and especially vodkas) shoot straight through to the back of the throat and into the bloodstream. With the Koloa, we feel like the flavor (maybe from the Hawaiian sugar cane) can bring to mind spring fruits and flowers well before hitting the back of the throat… and to us, that means beach mixing cocktails! Straight, the silver in particular has a bit of a needle and finishes rather fiery. The gold, perhaps due to the sugar, finishes more smoothly. We have to agree with Mr Luis of Got Rum… these are best used as mixers where the flavor can shine and you want a little burn in the fruit.
So for cocktails we open, in honor of the islands, with one of the most famous of South Pacific drinks: the Zombie cocktail. We used fresh orange juice, fresh lime juice, authentic grenadine, Angostura bitters, a bit of genuine absinthe—and, of course, a blend of dark and light rums (in this case, gold and white). The standard baseline rums made a very nice beach drink. Best of all—unlike many beach drinks—the Zombie has a complexity from the bitters and absinthe that’s very nice. This is one of the few beach drinks that can be sipped. With the Bacardi rum, it’s pretty good and one we’d come back to gladly.
So there… that’s the drink with a generic rum; can the Koloa make it better?
Mama, take me home and put me to bed because something about the flavor of the Koloa sang like Brittany shagging Justin Timberlake for the first time. It was absolutely fabulous in our version of the Zombie… to the point where we were sipping in machine gun bursts rather than conversing; a classic moment when a spirit designed for mixing comes through. The subtle flavors we noted in sipping neat come shining through in this cocktail and improves the drink dramatically.
Can Hawaii keep this up? Let’s move on.
That meant moving to another classic with a Trader Vic’s drink called The Scorpion. It uses orange juice, lime, light rum, and their signature orgeat (almond) syrup. Baselined with Bacardi, this was simply not a good cocktail. It was trying—it was trying very, very hard—but just like Jacob in Twilight¸ it just couldn’t close the deal!
Can Koloa save this drink?
Well, it made it more drinkable. Maybe our recipe was bad (what up Top Shelf Reviews?) but this is not a great cocktail. The good news is that an addition of Koloa white made it something we actually wanted to finish. The clean, dancing-step flavors come right through. (By the way, experimenting by adding grenadine made this drink a lot better.) In many ways, the improvement signals even better marks for the Koloa where the bartender / mixologist can rest assured that the quality of the rum will save the errant ingredient.
We moved on to a version of the El Presidente cocktail supplied by Esquire. A very simple, martini-style drink, it calls for rum (we used Cruzan aged), orange curacao (we used Cointreau), vermouth (we used a dry Gallo) and a dash of grenadine (presumably for color). The initial sip on this is great, the middle has a spike, and the finish is not very good. (The vermouth?) In fact, the finish is so bad it might make you keep sipping and sipping and sipping to keep you from ever actually getting to the finish. In desperation you shoot it, smile, and then gag (that’s what she said). But that’s with the generic rum.
Can Koloa save this?
Well, no… but heckuva college try on this. The gold Koloa made an almost gin-like flavor with the vermouth and the Cointreau. We were astonished at how gin-like this was. For martini lovers (and there were a few among us), there was some real love for this cocktail that moments ago was causing Roseanne Bar worthy retching. As we’re reminded again and again, the liquor you put in a cocktail matters a great deal and it meant a difference greater than any of the other drinks in this particular cocktail.
Our final verdict for Koloa is that it is almost a miracle mixer… it can make bad rum drinks good and good rum drinks fantastic. We absolutely loved it in the Zombie making it a big-time recommendation for more complex cocktails.
Special note: Kōloa Rum Company puts great stress on the long-O in "Kōloa," meaning an emphasis on the macron over the first "o." With apologies to the folks at Kōloa, we have ommitted the macron above simply to assist in Google searches.