Okolehao – Back from Extinction

  • Nicknames: Oke, Hawaiian Moonshine, White Mule, Hawaiian Whiskey, Lemu Hao
  • Distilled from the roots of the ti plant, also scientifically as Cordyline fruticosa and locally as ki, it is a member of the asparagus family
  • The Okolehao Trail on Kauai is named after the spirit, as the ti plant grows abundantly in the area

Okolehao is the first and only spirit originating in Hawai’i. Although invented by a haole, a non-native white person in Hawai’i, okolehao became a favorite drink of royalty, the local people, and sailors from the West.

Okolehao’s Roots

Okolehao’s story begins with scurvy. Yep, you read that right. Scurvy!

Nathaniel Portlock, the original inventor of ti root beer
Nathaniel Portlock, the inventor of ti root beer

Back around 1780, an English captain named Nathaniel Portlock, part of Captain Cook’s crew, searched for a way to prevent scurvy onboard his ship. He concocted a sort of crude beer by digging up the root of the ti plant, baking it, and then fermenting it. The result was a slightly alcoholic, crude form of beer that wasn’t tasty but served its purpose!

This beer-of-sorts remained just that for ten years until an Australian convict from New South Wales, William Stevenson, escaped on a passing ship and landed in the Islands. Clever Mr. Stevenson began to experiment with the concoction, creating a system for distillation. Using two giant iron pots from whaling boats that melted down whale blubber in their previous lives, he boiled down the liquid down into a stronger substance. When Native Hawaiians saw his contraption, they deemed it okolehao. This translates to “iron butt”, as they saw the two large pots as someone’s tush!

Imu

Old photo showing two hawaiians baking a whole pig in an imu, or underground oven
Loading a pig into the imu for baking

It is worth noting that Hawaiians utilized baked ti root long before any Westerners arrived. The Kaimuki neighborhood just outside of Waikiki on Oahu actually means “the ti root oven”, as the area was abundant with imus, or underground ovens. Hawaiians dug up the roots of mature green ti plants, coming in at three to six inches thick and up to several feet long, and roasted or steamed them to eat (mostly just chew) for candy.

Prohibition – Take One

With their new know-how, Hawaiians began experimenting with the addition other sugar sources to the mash, including pineapples, taro, sugar cane, coconut, and rice. Aside from being incredibly potent, the flavor of oke is described as earthy and vegetal, with wide ranges depending on additions to the mash bill and location of production (terrior is a real factor in these islands, with the influence of sea spray, mountains, and volcanoes to consider).

Although King Kamehameha I imbibed himself, he saw the effects of over indulgence. All the “drunken rabble in the streets” led to his ban of all “strong drink” in 1818. The Protestant missionaries also played a role in implementing the prohibition of alcohol (and other traditions, such as hula!). The ban applied only to Native Hawaiians, so Westerners and colonists still partook. Although the ban wasn’t lifted until 1833 by King Kamehameha III, it did not stopped locals from making or drinking their oke. Locals simply tucked away in the mountains, valleys, and forests to hide their illegal distillations. With Western techniques filtering over, some experimented with aging the oke in charred oak barrels, which added new flavors and mellowed its harshness. In 1889, a bottle of Waimanu-made okelehao won a bronze medal at the Paris World Exposition; shout out to famous paniolo “Rawhide Ben” for smuggling it in.

Royal Attraction

King Kalakaua who had his own private distiller
The Merry Monarch,
King Kalakaua

King Kamehameha I wasn’t the only royalty to enjoy this alcohol. The young Kamehameha II was noted to have “been drunk all the time” in some 1840 documentation from colonizers. King William Lunalilo who reigned from 1873-1874 was nicknamed “Whiskey Bill”. Following him, King David Kalakaua, who reigned 1874-1891, became known as “The Merry Monarch” and even had his own personal distiller!

Prohibition – Take Two

About a year and a half before the 18th Amendment took effect, the islands were already living in their second round of prohibition. As a World War I measure, the U.S. Congress banned alcohol. By the time prohibition hit the Unites States in 1920, Waipi’o Valley on Big Island was the den for making oke. One famous moonshiner and Parker Ranch cowboy by the name of Luther Makaeu told his daughter Virginia “Auntie Lehau” Kapaku of Nanakuli that they would chop up the ti plant roots, steam them in an underground over, or imu, and sell it in gallon jugs for up to $100! Unfortunately, Mr. Makaeu saw jail time for his illicit entrepreneurial ways.

“Oh, we love her, we crave her, we want her, okolehao.”

From “Hula Blues” written by Sonny Cunha and Johnny Noble and recorded by Sol Ho’opi’i’s Novelty Trio in 1927.

During World War II, Hawaiians would brew various forms of oke to sell to U.S. military men. As resources became more scarce due to the war, the quality of the oke suffered. After the war, vodka and rum from the Caribbean showed up. With it so readily available and tasting better than the crudely-made oke, the local distillers fizzled out.

Okolehao Makes a Comeback

Take One – Hawaiian Distillers

Hawaiian Distillers based in Honolulu produced oke from around mid-century to the early 1990s. People who’ve had the fortune of tasting both the homemade, non-commercial oke and the version from Hawaiian Distillers report that the newer version was too sweet and syrupy. The theory behind this is that the company imported bourbon from Kentucky and simply attempted to infuse the ti root flavor into the bourbon. Using either a ti root tincture or syrup, this “faux-kolehao” became a popular souvenir for the quickly-growing tourism industry with its unique ceramic Taiwanese bottles depicting island-themed decorations of tikis and hula girls. Sometime in the 1970’s, the formula converted to a liqueur, becoming sweeter and even less authentic. LaVecke Corporation out of California purchased Hawaiian Distillers in 1987 and continued to sell their okolehao for a few years before quitting production.

Take Two – Haleakala Distillers

Bottle of Okolehao made by Haleakala Distillers on 2009

Haleakala Distillers founder Jim Sargent jumped on the oke train in 2005. Building their company on an old dairy farm in Maui, Jim and his wife Leslie introduced okolehao back to the market in 2009. The 80-proof liqueur is composed of sugar and ti root locally-sourced from Maui. A pure ti root distillate was not federally allowed at the time of experimentation and production, hence the final product being a liqueur. Sweeter and subtler than its historic progenitors, some describe the flavor of Haleakala’s product as a cross between a tequila and a rum. Unfortunately, there is no current information available on Haleakala Distillery and I haven’t successfully located any of their products around town.

Third Time’s a Charm – Island Distillers

100 proof okolehao bottle from island distillery

Thankfully, there is one more player in the oke game! In 2012, Island Distillers of Honolulu brought back the traditional hooch, trying to ensure it was as close to the 18th-century oke as possible. Once labeled as Hawaiian Moonshine and now sporting an okolehao label, the distillery uses Big Island ti plant roots and sugar cane grown on Oahu or Maui. After the ti root is heated to convert the starches to sugars, it is fermented in a mash with yeast and sugar. In determining the recipe, Island Distillers owner Mike Flintstone researched old newspapers and documents, even translating some into English, for five years. The main difference between his final product and the 1792 version lies in the differences in machinery. Modern equipment and sanitation undoubtedly saved us from some of the funk in the original distillations!

Island Distillers ships their oke! Pop over here to snag a bottle. Just be prepared to cover the potentially-hefty shipping costs across the ocean if you aren’t lucky enough to pick one up on island.

Thanks for reading all about okoleaho!


Looking for more?

Enjoy Louis Armstrong’s 1937 hit “Hawaiian Hospitality” which throws a shout out to oke while you read this comical 1911 account of oke-d up hogs!

“And when my dreams of love come true
There will be ōkolehao for two”