It’s all about the rum

Bob Gunter does not offer roundabout answers to questions about Koloa Rum. He speaks with certainty, clarity —and with pride.

“People have responded well to Koloa Rum,” the company’s president said during a recent interview with The Garden Island. “Our products, everyone seems to think they meet their standards. We managed over the last five and a half years to win numerous awards and a number of international spirits competition, which we think validates our opinion about the quality, the taste of our rums.”

The rums are many. There’s white, gold, dark, spice and coconut. Each has a distinctive taste. Each has its own followers.

Gunter has his favorite.

“I like our white rum. To me, that’s pure rum,” he said. “Rum and water, that’s the tale of a good rum.”

That commitment to excellence explains the success of Koloa Rum that began doing business when it opened its Tasting Room and Company Store on the grounds of the Kilohana Plantation in September 2009. Since, it’s been building a portfolio of products so it’s not relying on one rum. A line of ready-to-drink cocktails — mai tai and rum punch — is doing well, and several others are on the drawing board.

“Our plan going forward is to continue to create new products on a regular, systematic basis so we always have something new and different and hopefully, appealing,” he said.

As Gunter says, people have different tastes.

“We want to appeal to as many people as possible, to give everyone something they’ll enjoy,” he said.

Growth is ahead for Koloa Rum. Sales have grown consistently since the company commenced bottling operations and opened its Tasting Room and Company Store. It is sold in 15 states across the U.S. Mainland, and internationally in Western Canada, Australia, France and Shanghai.

The distilling, blending, bottling and packaging, is all done on Kauai by Kauai residents.

“It is our intention to keep it that way going forward,” Gunter said.

The company had been looking to expand from its production facility in Kalahelo, so when 18 1/2 acres came up for sale on the outskirts of Koloa, the company bought it last year.

Initial plans call for construction of a new production facility, which would include a distillery and facilities to continue producing its Kukui Brand of Hawaiian jams and jellies, and expanded warehouse space, new administrative office, a new tasting room and a company store. It may also include a cafe and museum.

With nearly 20 acres, Gunter said they plan to grow sugar cane and fruits — products they use in rum making and jam and jelly production.

“Right now, the plan is to have 10 acres of sugar cane planted and growing there before the end of this year,” he said.

It’s a two- to three-year process of site preparation, infrastructure work and vertical construction.

It is, he said, an ideal location for the company to fully establish itself while pursuing its goals.

“For us, it’s a very exciting prospect to be located in Koloa Town, sort of brings us full circle,” Gunter said. “Koloa is our namesake, so it’s important to be located near it.”

Gunter believes “agricole,” rum made from fresh-pressed cane juice, will complement and enhance the products the company uses today.

“Up until now we’ve used raw sugar,” he said. “This new agricole project will allow us to use cane juice from sugar cane we’ve grown here on the island to produce our product. So it would give us control over the finished product, literally, from field to bottle.”

The popular Koloa Rum tasting room, where hundreds of visitors each day can try complimentary shots of rum and learn about the company’s and Kauai’s history, opened its doors in December 2009.

It came about because in the beginning stages, Gunter said they didn’t know if people would like their product.

“We were very anxious to see what the feedback was from the public, and so initially, we planned to sell retail exclusively from the tasting room on Kauai and nowhere else,” he said.

But feedback was “overwhelmingly positive.”

“From that point on, we’ve just grown and expanded,” he said.

Gunter doesn’t hesitate when asked about the best part of his job.

“I would have to say it’s the people that I work with, my teammates as I would refer to them,” he said. “We have an exceptional group of people who bring a variety of skills and service to bear. Without each and every one of them, we would not be having the success that we’ve had to date.”

Koloa Rum employs 21. When the new facility opens, it will increase the size of its workforce.

Gunter also said being involved in agricultural manufacturing on Kauai is gratifying — it’s about honoring and paying tribute to the history of sugar cane production on this island and in Hawaii.

“As everyone knows, agriculture is under duress,” he said. “We’ve lost our sugar industry here on Kauai, the pineapple industry, and being in a position to be able to support our agriculture industry, diversify the economy and create jobs, is very important and very meaningful.”

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