KAILUA-KONA — From Hawaii Island honey to local sweet potatoes to Kona’s famous coffee, Dave Puckett — founder and owner of Big Island Distillers — finds inspiration for his new line of spirits in the bounty grown and produced right here on the island he calls home.
“I really do believe in sourcing everything from the Big Island,” he said. “Because it does help the farmers, the beekeepers, and everybody that I have contact with, I want them to understand that I want the Hawaiian stuff.”
At the end of this week, Puckett hopes to launch retail sales of his Hawaiian Honey Shine and Purple Potato and Honey Vodka out of his distillery, located in Kaahumanu Plaza off Kaiwi Street.
“It all started with my love of a good whiskey,” said Puckett.
Puckett moved to Oahu from California in 1980 and made his way to Hawaii Island in 1996.
“I’ve been in construction for 43 years,” he said, “and my knee started wearing out. I was like, ‘I better find something different to do.’”
He left construction about two years ago, and Big Island Distillers, he said, marks his first venture into professional distilling.
One of his goals setting out, he said, was distilling every drop that goes into a bottle, rather than buying bulk spirits and flavoring them.
“I don’t think that’s the art of distilling,” he said. “So I wanted to be a real distiller and not a ‘flavorer.’”
Looking around for the most abundant source of sugar he could find locally, he decided to focus on local honey.
Puckett might have hit the sweet spot with that decision, literally, as the island dominates the state when it comes to honey.
Of the state’s 250 farms that reported collecting honey in the USDA’s 2017 agricultural census, Hawaii Island is host to 109 of them and collected more than 2.5 million pounds of the sweet stuff. That’s more than 94 percent of all the honey collected statewide that year.
And in addition to providing an efficient source of sugars to be converted into alcohol, he added, it also lends a special character to the final product.
“The finish of it is really nice,” he said. “It’s not overly sweet or anything else.”
From the Honey Shine and continuing to look for local resources, he found local purple sweet potatoes.
The potatoes, he said, lend an earthy note to the spirit without contributing a green, vegetable taste.
“I was really keen on that the first couple of batches I did — I was like, ‘Does it have a vegetable taste?’ — and I was like, ‘No, it doesn’t,’” he said. “But you can still taste the purple potato in there.”
Soon to follow the Honey Shine and vodka is a Kona coffee spirit.
Rather than using extracts to flavor the spirit, Puckett said he uses a maceration process in the midst of the process. Coffee beans, he said, are added to the spirit safe after the distillation process, but before he brings it down to proof.
Like the Hawaiian Honey Shine and Purple Potato and Honey Vodka, the coffee beans are all sourced locally — 100-percent Kona coffee to be exact — driven by his “love of Hawaii and its offerings.”
“Definitely home,” he said. “I don’t call home anywhere else. This is my home.”
Puckett is also seeing inspiration in other crops growing on the island from the “fruits that are grown here in abundance.”
“Mango brandy is one idea I have,” he said, as is a Big Island Bourbon made with local corn.
While retail sales will start out of the distillery, Puckett said he’s also been talking with retailers and distributors as well. He added that he hopes to have an official grand opening with tastings at the start of next month.