This Maui Restaurant and Bar Gets Its Inspiration From Hawaii’s Sugarcane History

When Hawaii’s commercial sugar industry folded, the Mill House on Maui found their sweet spot in fresh-pressed sugarcane juice.
November 24, 2019, 1:00 PM UTC
The bourbon-based, passionfruit-infused "Easy Rider" cocktail. Many tiki bars make a toasted nut–infused simple syrup, whereas Mill House brings in raw, local macadamia nuts, crushes and soaks them overnight, and turns the macadamia nut milk into a rich, marzipan-like syrup.
Mill House
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Sugarcane, as a mono-crop in Hawaii, is dead. The last commercial sugar mill on the islands began its final harvest on March 1, 2016; by December, the smokestacks of the Maui mill were still. Missionary families and their descendants dominated Hawaii’s economy with production of the crop for more than a century, peaking during the Civil War and bringing tens of thousands of immigrants from China, Japan, and the Philippines to work the plantations.

But among the ashes of commercially produced white sugar, there’s room again to appreciate sugarcane’s roots. In Maui’s upcountry, Oko’a Farms in Kula uses it as windbreak for other crops. Not far away, Hawaii Sea Spirits crushes stalks for its organic vodka. At the base of the West Maui Mountains, a quarter-acre grows on the historic Maui Tropical Plantation for the Mill House, a farm-forward restaurant in the Waikapū Valley. Though it’s minuscule in comparison to the fields that once drove the economy, the year-old plot provides enough sugarcane for head bartender and sustainability coordinator Dane Dostert to build a cocktail menu around.

During peak season, the bar crushes some 1,000 pounds a month from the modest plot that Dostert planted. Some of the cane juice is reserved to be used on its own, while the rest is clarified and strained to make a cane syrup. It’s nothing like the crystal clear, one-dimensional sweeteners common in bars. Instead, both house-made ingredients are deep in color, honey-like and rich, with a complex profile that can’t be described as simply sweet alone. There’s warmth. There’s fullness. And the difference is palatable—expressed in detail across the Mill House’s cocktail menu, which doubles as an experiential gustatory education of sugarcane, from raw ingredient to spirit.

It’s a journey that’s not far from the one Dostert took himself, coming to Maui from the mainland with a background in environmental policy and a taste for whiskey that, within just a few years, was replaced with his Mill House nickname: Sugarcane Dane. Here, Dostert talks about the financial savvy of sustainability, why he’s so sweet on sugarcane, and how creativity is born of restriction before sharing a Mill House recipe—no sweet tooth required.

Fortune: Most people probably associate sugarcane juice in cocktails with an overtly sweet drink. How do you address that?

Dostert: White sugar is the end point of the refining process of sugar. You strip everything away, and you’re just left with sucrose. It’s one dimensionally just really sweet. Incorporating sugarcane can provide sweetness but also flavor and complexity. It has the molasses still in it, too, that has this kind of richness. Balance is the keyword. Fruits all contain sugars. Pineapple has sugar, but it also has acid, right? So it’s this delicious fruit, because it’s got both in balance. So cane juice, when you measure, it has roughly the same amount of sugar as pineapple. Sugar is not a bad thing. The problem is the types of sugar that are used, the amounts, and the lack of balance that’s often in cocktails. These less refined types of sugar, it’s going to be easier to balance them.

So when we say sugarcane, a lot of what we’re talking about is rum. In the sugarcane cocktails, they’re rum-based cocktails; they’re made from sugarcane. I was getting into rum and undoing some of what I thought—of rum being this really sweet spirit, like Captain Morgan, flavored Bacardi, rums with a lot of added things. Then I was learning about these dryer styles of rums—there are rums that are unadulterated, that drink more like whiskey—and really connecting to sugarcane and rum. When I moved down here, I was whiskey only. Now it’s funny, I like just rum. That’s all I drink—and a little bit of mezcal.

How does the Mill House take direction from the land it sits on? Where does sustainability come in?

It’s 1,800 acres, the Maui Tropical Plantation, in central Maui at the base of the West Maui Mountains, one of the wettest places in the world, at the top. So we have this access to water in a climate that can grow food year round. That part of it for me was that if you have the ability to grow food and access to these things, you better try—you better do something.

The Mill House has been this cool, unique place that has really championed locally grown food and farms and the revival of that, which is important on an island that up until recently imported 85% or more of its food, or something like that was the number five years ago.

One of the farmers upcountry, up in Kula, Gerry Ross who runs Kupa‘a Farms, he gave a little talk to the restaurant staff about composting and soil biology. After that, one of the servers (who’s kind of like my compost farm partner) and I, we decided to start the compost program at the restaurant. We estimate we capture probably about half of it at this point, but it’s a pretty large operation. Then that has now transitioned into gardening. We’ve planted a quarter-acre so far of sugarcane.

So a more financially sustainable aspect is trying to grow it ourselves on this unique property. There are these overlapping notions of sustainability: The larger scale of we’re making the island more sustainable by buying and supporting these farms, their expansion, and locally grown food; then if we can grow the food on property, we’re not having to buy it, it becomes a more sustainable model as a business.

The sugarcane’s cool because if we can offset purchasing 50-pound bags of sugar from Brazil, that’s a big deal. A major aspect of a restaurant—of cocktail programs—is sugar and citrus, sugar and acid. Every bar has or should have lime juice, lemon juice, and sugar.

Is the cocktail menu a collaborative effort? Where are your fingerprints?

It wasn’t in the past; it was all me. That’s something I’m really proud of is that now we have three other bartenders with one or two drinks on the menu. To me, that’s huge because that means they’re buying in. They’re learning what’s seasonal, what’s available, how to work with it. They’re boxed in. You know what I mean? There’s limitations on what they can do. They’ve all worked places and come up with cocktails, but to have these parameters that force you to kind of… It’s more of a challenge.

But in terms of a fingerprint, like you said, it would definitely be rum. The whole second page [of the menu] is classic rum cocktails. Then I think intensity of flavor and being able to actually taste that local component would be a hopeful goal for most of those drinks, because every cocktail has some local component, even if we’re importing whiskey and vermouth and amaros and bitters and stuff like that. One of our stirred cocktails has a smoked pineapple gum syrup.

Those bolder flavors, that intensity has always been a big focus. There’s certain fruit that I just don’t work with because it’s “cool”—like star fruit, for instance, is one that even at its ripest, is still very light. Or lychee. Lychee’s very light, and it’s also not worth it as far as the amount of work to peel every single lychee. I think it’s almost cooler to say it’s in there than actually what you taste.

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