GARY T. KUBOTA / GKUBOTA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Leslie and Harrison "Jim" Sargent have begun to expand their Maui rum-making business to Oahu.
Maui rum maker is catching a buzz
MAKAWAO, Maui » Down a rutted road of former cow pastures and feed gates on the slopes of Haleakala, Harrison "Jim" Sargent and his wife, Leslie, have been lifting their entrepreneurial spirits by bottling rum distilled from Maui sugar cane.
Their Haleakala Distillers recently began expanding its sales of rum to Oahu, including its 80-proof Maui Dark Rum, Maui Platinum Rum and Maui Gold Rum.
Its Bruddah Kimo's Da Bomb Rum, at 155 proof, is used mainly for cooking, including desserts such as strawberry panzini, banana flambe and stollen bread.
One of its latest customers is the new Embassy Suites in Waikiki, which has the Sargents' rums on its cocktail menu.
Jim Sargent, a retired executive with Texas-based netspend.com, said the enterprise has focused on developing its product and selling directly to retailers, including Longs Drug.
"We're very product-centered," he said.
Sargent said he felt there was a market for Maui-made rum but was aware that a rum plant on Maui had closed in the 1980s.
He said his family business, started in 2003, began on a small scale, experimenting with local molasses and a fermentation process at higher altitudes.
Sargent said that by the middle of 2004, the business had a product good enough to sell.
Its first bottle of rum was sold at Rodeo General Store in Makawao.
"It sells well," said Gardner Howard, the store's owner. "A lot of locals and tourists buy it as gifts."
Howard said the molasses used to make the rum is some of the best in the world and that Jim Sargent has developed a quality product.
"He's done his homework," Howard said.
Jim Sargent said the rum has a quality of a higher-priced rum but is in the midprice range because there is no distributor, importer or wholesaler.
The rum sells for about $13 to $14 and as high as $27 in resort shops, he said.
Last year, the Sargent's Maui Reserve Gold Rum received a bronze medal at the International Cane Spirits Festival's tasting competition in Ybor City, Fla.
The Sargents' headquarters is in the old office of Haleakala Dairy at the nearly 2,000-foot level of Haleakala, where Jim Sargent works as the master distiller and technology manager, and Leslie Sargent as the business operations manager.
Haleakala Ranch, which formerly operated the dairy, is an "active partner" in the venture, Jim Sargent said.
Sargent said at the high elevation, the fermenting period is longer than usual for most rum, but Haleakala Distillers' process allows the yeast to produce alcohol with fewer impurities.
Another difference is the location of the source of the molasses. While some rum distilleries receive their molasses by ship, Haleakala Distillers has a tanker that loads the molasses directly from the processing plant at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. in Puunene.
"The molasses is still hot and hasn't been allowed to sit for weeks and maybe months," he said.
Sargent, 51, said he was a Gallo wine trainee in his 20s and has been interested in the distilling process for most of his adult life, traveling to visit distilleries in Scotland and family wineries in Italy.
The Sargents' rum is aged in oak casks that formerly held Jim Beam whiskey, and there is a hint of the whiskey in the rum, he said.
The distilling plant, located next to the office, uses copper containers and pipes to develop high-quality distillate, and some equipment has been designed and built specifically for the plant, Sargent said.
Leslie Sargent said she enjoys working in the business because it focuses on developing a self-sustaining economy, using Maui products such as sugar and adding value to it.
The Sargents hope to eventually develop byproducts from the rum production, including high-protein animal feed supplements and pasture fertilizer.
"We don't have to import everything from the mainland. We've got a lot of resources right here," Leslie Sargent said.
She said her family has tried to promote a self-sustaining environment.
The business has supported the nonprofit Pacific Whale Foundation, donating a dollar a bottle for the sale of "Save the Whales Rum" with a label depicting a whale breaching.
The Sargents use a van and car that run on biodiesel fuel from Maui-based Pacific Biodiesel.