Premium vodka truly handcrafted by a micro-distiller
December 2, 2015 – As the days get shorter, darker and colder, the Hawaiian Islands become even more magical in our reveries. The thought of pineapple vodka lures us to imagine swaying palms, island music, warm breezes – all the images of Hawaii that we love so much. So when we received a bottle of Pau Maui Pineapple Vodka we were thrilled. Anything tasting of pineapple is a winner.
With all the flavored vodkas on the market, it was definitely time for pineapple but we had it all wrong! Pau Maui is not a flavored vodka. It is actually distilled from pineapples grown on Maui. We had to find out more.
Mark Nigbur, Master Distiller, was delighted to describe his creation. His distilling background dates back about 15 years to Colorado where he started a distillery and became known for his superior product and unconventional distilling techniques such as using custom made glass stills in place of the usual copper stills. About the same time, two brothers of the LeVecke family, whose 50-years-plus history in the spirits industry included three decades in Hawaii developing Hana Bay Rum and Whaler’s Rum, decided they wanted to start a micro-distillery on Maui. Their search for a master distiller connected them with Mark who shipped his family and unique equipment to Maui, home of the Hali’imale Distilling Company.
The distillery sits Up-country at Makawao, in the heart of pineapple fields planted with Maui Gold Pineapples, an especially sweet pineapple with high sugar content perfect for fermentation. Just as winemakers walk the vineyards to check the grapes, Mark walks the pineapple fields to ensure the fruit is picked at optimum ripeness. A local winery crushes the pineapple, after peeling, and the pure juice is shipped to the distillery. In 24 hours it starts fermenting and in three days, there is mash. Mark uses custom built plastic tanks with glass lids allowing visitors to the distillery and visitor center, to see the mash. At most distilleries, tour guides point to an enclosed stainless steel tank but at Pau Maui it is on view. Mash isn’t especially attractive, as shown in the nearby photo, but eventually it results in perfectly clear liquid through the distillation process. Only yeast and crystal clear Maui spring water are added to the pure pineapple juice.
Distillation is where it gets interesting. Back in Colorado, Mark Nigbur designed and produced laboratory grade glass stills with 14-foot columns, the only ones in the world. He believes copper can impart flavor as the distillation process takes place. The single distillation is similar to a continuous still, but the column contains volcanic rock for filtration purposes. After one pass the spirit is already at 96.5% alcohol and then goes through gravity filtration via activated carbon. The result is totally pure, clean vodka that does not taste of pineapple but has an elusive sweetness to it. It compares very favorably with other premium vodkas and, of course, it is gluten free.
If you taste it neat, you’ll notice the notes of sweetness on the front palate. Mark refers to this as the fingerprint of pineapple. It has a lovely, rounded mouthfeel that is natural – meaning no glycerin added. There’s a bit of alcohol burn but that’s expected with 80 proof alcohol tasted neat. Keep sipping it and it gets smoother and smoother! Or add some ice and it goes away. When it comes to cocktails, mixologist Andrew Leonardo of Lieber Brothers commented, “It is fabulous for mixing. It grabs onto other flavors.” You can see our interview with Andrew on our Entertainment page http://www.wineandspirits.com/cocktails-for-thanksgiving-and-the-holidays/ and his recipe for “The Pau Passion Martini”, drink #4.
Pau Maui Vodka production is limited to less than 1,000 bottles a month and it is truly a handcrafted spirit. Every step of production is measured and watched by Mark on a daily basis. A pineapple is recognized as a symbol of “Welcome!”, so a bottle on the bar will welcome friends and delight them too.
Pau Maui was awarded a Gold Medal in 2015 from Beverage Testing Institute, along with 92 points and Best Buy. It retails around $20 to $25 for a 750 ml bottle.