Maui's little Haleakala Distillers is the sole local representative of a growing movement toward local, artisanal liquor-makers.
Bill Owens, a distiller and brewer in Hayward, Calif., and founder of the American Distilling Institute, said in a telephone interview that hundreds of distillers are expected at the next national convention in Louisville, Ky., in May.
He said the venture of making an authentic and local okolehao is "a great idea."
The Maui News / BRIAN PERRY photo
Maui Okolehao Liqueur is available in limited amounts from Haleakala Distillers.
"There's a lot of fake stuff," he admits, but the distilling business is going through the same process that brewing went through a generation ago.
In the '60s and '70s, national companies bought up local brewers (remember Primo?) and it was predicted in the industry that eventually there would be just three or four brewers left in the United States. The rise of the craft brewers, assisted by state laws making it easier to run brewpubs, ruined that prediction. Now there are more than a thousand small breweries.
Recently, international companies have been absorbing local distillers, and, as with beer, that has opened the door for small, artisanal distillers.
It isn't easy, though, said Owens. "I get phone calls all the time" from people who imagine that making and selling alcohol is a quick way to riches.
"I ask them, can you drive a forklift?" he said. There are a lot of things that go into a successful small distillery, beginning with a three- to five-year period before the liquor flows. It is common for ersatz distillers to contract out their manufacture to a big distillery and slap a "looks like local" label on a product.
The same phenomenon was observed in Hawaii, and several of those supposedly local brewers seemed more interested in selling logo T-shirts than beer. Most failed. Jim Sargent at Haleakala Distillers said that's one reason he doesn't sell T-shirts.
On Owens' Web site (www.distilling.com), he advises, "If someone claims to be a distillery, check their Web sites to see if they show a still and really distill."
Owens' own distilling venture is supported by his brewpub. Owens was in the Peace Corps, later became a newspaper photographer (whose book "Suburbia" is still in print), was an early entrant in craft brewing and moved on to craft distilling.
He said that small distillers are reviving old drinks and old techniques that had withered away, from making rum out of fresh sugar cane juice (rather than molasses) in Georgia to tequila "using 12th Century methods" in Mexico.
Artisanal distillers put up videos of their handcrafted work on YouTube, and Owens recommends that the Sargents do the same for their okolehao. "People would go crazy" to see it done, Owens said, "I don't care how funky it is."
* Harry Eagar can be reached at email@example.com.