Capturing the Hanalei ‘spirit’

  • Jessica Else / The Garden Island

    Grant and Bindi Wells’s Hanalei Spirits Distillery products are now in select stores and restaurants.

  • Jessica Else / The Garden Island

    Hanalei Spirits Distillery is the site of all of the stilling and packaging operations for the company, which operates out of a building on the Wells family farm.

  • Jessica Else / The Garden Island

    Grant Wells explains the mash vat at the Hanalei Spirits Distillery in Kilauea.

  • Jessica Else / The Garden Island

    Bindi Wells shows another step in the process at Hanalei Spirits Distillery in Kilauea.

KILAUEA — When general contractor Grant Wells decided he wanted to cut some calories out of his life, he stopped brewing his own beer.

And started distilling his own spirits instead.

“He started brewing beer with some friends just for fun,” said Well’s wife Vindi, the other half of Hanalei Spirits Distillery, housed on the family’s 6.5-acre Kilauea farm. “Now we’ve got the still and we’re so busy I wonder if we’ll ever go on vacation again.”

“It’s challenging and we’re constantly learning,” Grant added.

Inside the spacious, barn-like building, the distillery is home to three refurbished fermenters and a mash vat that were found in fields around Kauai, and a still that arrived from a small company in Boise, Idaho in March.

It all started in 2014, Vindi says, when Grant got the idea and the duo started researching. Soon, that turned to an “American Pickers” style of scavenging, and after visiting several homes around Kauai, Grant scrounged up the fermenters and the mash vat — all in desperate need of repair.

Grant and Vindi set to welding and polishing, cleaning and retrofitting. After an unexpectedly quick federal permitting process and the equally expedited construction of their building, they had their grand opening in November.

Now, their first batches of sugarcane vodka and rum made with molasses and sugar are in select Kauai restaurants and stores including Hanalei Liquor Store, Princeville Wine Market, Palate Market, Healthy Hut and The Wine Shop.

And, Grant has a loft and a cot in the distillery where he can take breaks while the still is going through a run, which can take up to 18 hours. The process requires a lot of monitoring and dedication.

“While it’s running, he’s over here at the parrot beak (where the spirits leave the still) testing and smelling it to be able to tell how the process is going,” Vindi said.

Grant has final say over the final flavor profiles of their spirits, and solely using his palate ensures a consistent flavor.

“That’s one of the reasons craft (the trend of purchasing handmade products) is so popular,” Vindi said.

The spirits are made from some locally sourced ingredients, and the duo are raising breadfruit, dragonfruit and lilikoi on their farm to make into things like breadfruit vodka.

“Here in Kauai, sugarcane is part of our history,” Vindi said.

Also part of the island’s history is okolehao, made from ti leaf roots grown on the Wells farm, an ancient spirit made by whalers and English seamen in the late 1700s. The name comes from the iron pots that were converted from sailing ships into stills which represented the shape of a backside, partly derived from the Hawaiian word okole.

Hanalei Spirits Okolehao is in the works, as is taro vodka, made from locally grown Hanalei taro.

Hanalei Spirits also has a gin still waiting to be connected, and that will be flavored with the dragonfruit, lillikoi and other fruits.

While the distillery expanded from a hobby, it’s growing into a way to support and connect the family — kids and parents have been involved along the way — and also is a way to help keep the homestead.

“With all the properties around here going for millions, our property taxes are unaffordable,” Vindi said. “Overall, here in Kauai, our economy is based on tourism and we are looking at ways of branching out from that. This is a good way to support local jobs and quality of life.”

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Jessica Else, environment reporter, can be reached at 245-0452 or jelse@thegardenisland.com.

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