Restaurant Insider with Anne Lee: RHS DistilleryRestaurant Insider
January 24, 2021
Story By: Anne Lee | Photos by: LAWRENCE TABUDLO
ANNE LEE speaks with RHS Distillery founder KAREL KON
After opening its doors in 2015, Royal Hawaii Spirits (RHS) Distillery has become quite the hit with locals and has garnered fans from around the world for its lavish libations. This week, founder and master distiller Karel Kon shares with Dining Out readers what’s new and exciting with the business.
AL: How did you get into this industry?
KK: This is my retirement project. I am originally from the Czech Republic, and over there we are known for Pilsners and Budweiser — and making our own alcohol. Every village would have a distillery and they could make flavored liquors legally. I wanted to share the all flavors with the people of Hawaii. I married a Kaimuki girl in 1998 and worked since then as a travel agent, real estate broker and project manager.
I grew tired of waiting for European-style liquors that our visiting friends and family would bring us. I wanted to share with my friends the insane flavors and aromas of unique European and Asian spirits, and saw the potential in the local variety of tropical fruits, such as breadfruit (three medals), pineapple (three silver medals), sugar cane (silver medal), mango, lychee, hibiscus, lavender, ginger, turmeric, Kona coffee (silver medal) and more as superior flavors for new fusions of American, Asian and European recipes.
AL: What do you think makes RHS Distillery unique here in Hawaii and tell me about the name?
KK: For local farmers, we can distill for them if they have too much fruit. We can ferment it and help them get something back. This is truly a made-in-Hawaii product.
We also try to test all possible Hawaii fruits and herbs in craft alcohol distilling, explore the locally available natural flavors (aromas or both) and develop spirits or liqueurs with standalone flavors. For example, we have a ginger spirit that’s mixed or paired with another local ingredient such as Kona coffee, turning it into Kona Mule. Or, we mix it with Big Island honey for a Hawaii Mule, or pair them with mainland ingredients to make GLO (ginger, lime, orange) Hula Vodka, Sakura Shochu, Ginger Cherry Liqueur, Maui Pink Gin, 808 Flavored Whisky and Soju.
It was a long search, but we got lucky that the “Spirit” name was still available for trademark filing, and since our focus is the highest quality of liquor, the Royal Hawaii Spirits name looked appropriate.
AL: What are the bestselling items on the menu and customer favorites?
KK: We chose five of our bestsellers.
We have our newest version of the Okolehao Iron Butt Moonshine. This is our version and recipe and interpretation.
Hawaii Punch — it’s our version; its not like fruit punch. It’s so strong that it gives a punch to your face, as it’s 100 proof. It’s very good to use as a mixer for punch and has a bit of lilikoi inside.
Ahi Tuna Vodka was our attempt to give to the Japanese restaurants, should they want to offer something other than shochu or sake. We make this from the freshest ahi. It has to be sushi quality — more fat has more flavors and aroma. It’s pretty expensive, but it’s really good for making a bloody mary. The quality of the vodka is insane. It smells like ahi and the flavor is exactly like eating ahi. This is a gold medal winner.
Taro Shochu is a rum-based shochu. It’s minimum taro, just for the flavors and aroma, and it highlights what Hawaii offers on the island.
AL: What are your price points?
KK: Prices start from $20. Most of the unique beverages are $30-$45. Custom orders start from $50 and up. Private labels are available for bars, clubs, stores, wedding planners and the public.
Only 20 percent of our products are listed or offered online. So, you may check RHS’ Sales & Tasting Room for a treasure hunt for the rest of the unique, limited quantities of adult alcohol beverages, such as Li Hing Mui Vodka, Haupia Rum, Oahu Liqueur, Bier-schnapps, Lychee Brandy, Dragon Fruit Spirit, Shaojiu, Duck Sauce Spirit, Prickly Pear Spirit, BF Whisky, Island Gin, Hibiscus Vodka, Bounty Vodka, Maui Onion Spirit, Black Tea Liqueur and many more.
AL: Lilikoi Liquor is also a fan favorite. Tell me more about this.
KK: It’s good as it gets. It’s better served chilled or over ice, if you want to dilute it. You can top it over pancakes or shave ice.
AL: What is something that has been challenging for you?
KK: We are looking for a distributer to help us get these into grocery stores and more retail locations statewide.
AL: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
KK: Besides the 120 bronze, silver, gold, double gold and platinum awards RHS received in 2020, we also earned accolades, including Flavored Vodka Distillery of the Year in Hong Kong, Liqueur Distillery of The Year in New York and Brandy Distillery of The Year in Melbourne, Australia.
We usually have a liquor of the week that is 30 percent off. Military and first-responders receive 20 percent off. We have a bottle called 80.8 Pono Hawaii Punch 161.8 Proof. This you can keep in your cabinet and use for sanitizing as well.