By Anni Caporuscio

The line-up for Hanalei Spirits: Okolehao, Taro Vodka, Dark Rum, Cane Sugar Vodka, Lilikoicello, Gin, Pineapple Rum, Rum. In the background, you can see the giant machinery that makes a small distillery cook.

On what happened to be the seconc birthday of Hanalei Spirits, I had the opportunity to visit with Vindi Wells at her family-owned and operated distillery in Kilauea, in an idyllic setting next to green fields and food-producing acreage.

Inside the distillery, enormous, shiny copper pots and towers are used in to make spirits. Then there are real oak barrels, bottles and instruments used for distilling, making the place look like a science lab. Vindi’s husband, Grant Wells, is the mad scientist behind the recipes and distilling.

Hanalei Spirits is notable for its inspiring origin, its values to preserve traditions and its commitment to making spirits from local products. And of course, delicious beverages.

Grant started brewing beer as a hobby with friends. They would gather in Hanalei and daydream about what they wanted to do in the future. They would talk about how special it is to have grown up on Kaua‘i, the simplicity of running through sugarcane fields and fishing in little streams. They wanted to hold on to some of that simplicity, and landed on the idea of using local agriculture to craft a unique island-made collection of spirits.

The machinery is gorgeous and mysterious.

“Hanalei” captures the nostalgia of carefree youth and a land outside time. “Spirits” is a great wordplay of the aloha spirit, the spirit behind culture and Kaua‘i’s legends, and a sophisticated synonym for alcohol.

The Wells’ are passionate about observing traditions behind spirit-making. Their signature Okolehao, for example, is made from ti root. In the 1790s, when whaling ships passed through Hawai‘i, the sailors found the Hawaiians brewed beer from ti root, a chew and spit fermentation. When the sailors ran out of their regular ration of rum, they converted their whaling pots to make a still with the beer and stored it in the old rum barrels.

These days, the Grants use an imu to render an absurd amount of ti root into a smokey crystallized base to make a modern Okolehao based on the old ways. They even to store it in rum barrels. Hanalei Spirits is also the first distillery to make a vodka from taro, a smooth and delicious drink that helps to keep Hanalei taro farmers in business.

Part of the vision for Hanalei Spirits is to use local products. They learned that the more middlemen between producers and consumers, the less money stays on Kaua‘i. So they buy directly from local farms, giving local producers a market and the guaranteed sales that allow them to thrive. Also, ingredients grown on the island create a more authentic and delicious product.

Vindi Wells, with her husband, Grant, own and operate Hanalei Spirits, a family distillery on Kaua‘i’s North Shore that uses local ingredients to make their delicious spirits.

It takes a shocking amount of taro to produce a batch of taro vodka, and the same amount of ti root for Okolehao. The gin, which must be made from 51 percent juniper to be called “gin,” uses a potpourri of botanicals, kefir lime leaves, citrus zest, and more. Gin distilling day is Vindi’s favorite day for the heavenly aromas.

Hanalei Spirits had a few COVID-19-related projects, like many of us. In Marc,h when we couldn’t find enough hand sanitizer, the FDA allowed distillers to produce it. The Wells’ were ready to go with the exact formula provided by the FDA. They even received a PPE grant to purchase a special bottling machine to accommodate the tiny bottles. Their first bottles of hand sanitizer were donated to hospitals, schools and first responders on Kaua‘i. Another project is the formulation and release of three new products: Pineapple Rum, Lilikoicello — a delightful nod to the Italian Limoncello — and Gin, affectionately called “tutu’s gin.”

Find Hanalei Spirits at local stores around Kaua‘i, from Hanalei to the Koke‘e Lodge. Visit www.hanaleispirits.com. They also sell a line of gear and bar accessories. Also new: Bar in a Bag! Everything you need to make a top-shelf cocktail with Hanalei Spirits delivered to your door. Just add ice.

  • Anni Caporuscio is a food, coffee and book lover. She can be found walking her dog Wilson at the Kapa‘a Bike Path, or crushing enemies at the Kapa‘a Hockey Rink during roller derby season.

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