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Okolehao, the Sweet Hawaiian Moonshine With an Unsavory Past

Is the once-maligned spirit ready for a comeback?

And when my dream of love comes true
There will be okolehao for two,
A little Welakahao might do,
It's just the old Hawaiian hospitality.
("Hawaiian Hospitality," Owens & Kinney, 1937)

Written in 1937, the song "Hawaiian Hospitality" exemplifies the prominent role in Hawai’ian life played by its only native spirit, okolehao, which is made from the root of the ti plant — a plant native to the South Pacific that’s closely tied to the Hawaiian culture. Oke (as it’s often referred to) is a sweet, funky, earthy-tasting moonshine, and after falling out of favor in the mid-20th century, the spirit was recently reintroduced to bars and shelves by the Oahu-based Island Distillers.

As a result of Island Distillers' efforts, it's poised to make a mighty comeback, putting its sometimes dark history into stark relief against current political and cultural movements. The liquor’s questionable past seems to straddle the line between cultural marker and cultural anathema — so outside the simple pleasures of drinking it in a cocktail or on its own, what does oke’s re-introduction really mean?

Oke on the Islands

The story of okolehao’s first appearance is a bit mysterious, but Isabella Aiona Abbott, in her book La’au Hawaii: Traditional Uses of Hawaiian Plants, attributes it to English ship captain Nathaniel Portlock. Part of captain Cook’s crew in 1780, Portlock needed a way to prevent scurvy among his sailors and so, according to Abbott, he dug up the root of a ti plant and, after baking it, fermented it into a crude sort of beer.

It took about 10 years for someone to finally distill the beer into liquor. That someone, according to the Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, was an escaped convict named William Stevenson who had fled the penal colony of New South Wales, Australia, by stowing away on a passing ship. The ship made land in the Hawaiian islands and soon thereafter the enterprising Stevenson used two large iron pots from a whaling ship to boil his distillate. To the native Hawaiians, the two pots resembled a person’s backside, so they gave the drink the name "okolehoa," which roughly translates to "iron bottom."

Illegally made oke, with the addition of sugar cane and pineapple, saturated Hawaii during both prohibitions.

At first okolehao was embraced, both by sailors from the West who craved something powerful (the stuff was almost pure alcohol) and by the native people, including chiefs and even king Kamehameha I. Fearing overindulgence, the king famously banned all "strong drink" in 1818.

The ban was partially due to the influence of Protestant missionaries like Hiram Bingham from the United States. Through their urging, the Hawaiian royalty began abandoning not only alcohol, but many of their traditional practices (even the Hula). And while liquor was legal for Westerners and colonists, it was banned among native people until Kamehameha I's prohibition was lifted in 1833 by Kamehameha III.

This was the first of two prohibitions the islands suffered (the second being imposed by the U.S. government in 1920), and the first time the islands saw moonshining and bootlegging. Illegally made oke, with the addition of other ingredients like sugar cane and pineapple, saturated Hawaii during both prohibitions and up through World War II when other spirits weren’t so easily found — but it never really found its way off the islands.

After the war, with an abundance of rum and vodka in Hawaii, oke fell out of favor. Eventually most all oke distillers went under, with the few remaining only making knockoff versions that sold primarily to tourists. In the past few years, though, things have changed.

Reintroducing the Hawaiian Spirit

The last of the old commercial okolehao producers, Hawai’ian Distillers (which was bought out by the LaVecke Corp. in 1987) ceased making its version of oke in the mid-1990s. It truthfully wasn’t that much of a loss — the version, labeled a "liqueur," didn’t come close to resembling 18th-century okolehao. This sweet, 70-proof, syrupy drink appealed mostly to visitors. In 2005, Maui-based Haleakala Distillers began making its own version, also a liqueur (this time 80-proof) rather than a spirit.

But in 2012, Dave Flintstone — an ex-bartender and owner of Island Distillers — reintroduced okolehao to the world, allowing people to really taste the true spirit for the first time in a century. Flintstone’s version, called Hawaiian Moonshine, uses ti root sourced from the Big Island and sugar cane from Oahu and Maui to make what he believes is about as close to original oke as you can get.

And while no original 18th-century recipes exist anymore, Flintstone says he reproduced his version after conducting five year’s worth of research that included reading and translating archived newspapers written in Hawaiian. From this research, Flintstone says he can "reliably guess the 1792 version was much harsher and funkier tasting, due to the rudimentary equipment used." Other than that, he says, it’s about the same. Flintstone’s okolehao is smooth with a hint of sweetness (from the ti root) and, because it’s completely unaged and a full 100 proof, it lights a fire in your mouth. It is moonshine, after all.

And, Flintstone says, his oke has been enthusiastically welcomed by visitors and locals alike. After its introduction on Oahu, sales of Hawaiian Moonshine quickly spread to the rest of the islands. He doesn’t have any distributors on the mainland, but instead sells and ships through his website to the homesick and the curious.

"It’s a unique flavor... People are really curious to try okolehao."

Hawaiian Moonshine is also finding a home in the better cocktail lounges of the islands. On Oahu, bartender Christa Cook, at the Hula Grill, uses Hawaiian Moonshine in a cocktail called Tutu’s Moonshine. On Maui, the Lahaina Grill uses it in the "Bee Sting," its version of the Bee’s Knees, a prohibition-era cocktail that originally used gin. Annabehl Sinclair-Delaney, Lahaina Grill’s mixologist and creator of the Bee Sting, says that the Hawaiian Moonshine okolehao has "a lovely mellow, smooth sweetness to it that is reminiscent of an aged rum or even cognac."

But perhaps the most passionate okolehao evangelist is Nicole Jones, who describes the spirit as "viscous, fragrant, herbal, and earthy." Jones, the celebrated bartender at downtown Honolulu's Downbeat Lounge, says she’d heard about the locally made okolehao from friends and immediately tracked it down. She’d read about the spirit in a 1940s Trader Vic's book and, thanks to her interest in pre-statehood Hawaii, wanted to incorporate it into her menu.

Jones notes that Downbeat’s "Oke Punch," made with Moonshine, St. Germain, and dried hibiscus flowers, has been a top seller since the bar opened. "It's an approachable crowd pleasing cocktail with a unique flavor," she says, "and people are really curious to try okolehao." By all accounts then, the new okolehao should be a celebrated success, right? Well, maybe it’s not as simple as that.

Photo: Island Distillers/Facebook

What Does Okolehao’s Re-Introduction Really Mean?

While bartenders, mixologists, and cocktail nerds agree oke's allure stems from its nostalgic roots and its role in the islands’ collective history, others are much more hesitant to afford it any type of acclaim or to even discuss it at all. In a modern Hawai'i that’s seen a resurgence of Hawaiian sovereignty activists and a growing interest in native cultural education and sensitivity, where does its only "native" spirit fit in? In a word, it’s complicated.

True, okolehao is a native spirit, meaning that it originated from the islands using native ingredients. But at the same time, it was created by the groups that many blame for the island kingdom’s downfall and for the struggles of many of its indigenous people. Oke was used as barter and for pleasure by Hawaiian royalty like King Kamehameha I — many chiefs and King David Kalākaua (the "Merrie Monarch") were said to have had their own distillers. But those royals also banned the Hawaiian people from consuming it — only to make it legal again as a political move, when King Kamehameha III sought to break the authority that the Western missionaries (like the aforementioned Hiram Bingham) had on the islands.

Almost all interviewees remembered their fathers making okolehao, buying it, trading it, or drinking it.

Okolehao is mentioned prominently in a number of books about the island’s history, cuisine, and flora. In an oral study of native Hawaiians carried out in the late 1970s, the interviewer asks his participants to recollect what life was like in the 1920s and earlier. Almost all participants referenced okolehao and memories of their fathers making it, buying it, trading it, or drinking it. But what’s interesting is that, though it has played such an influential role in the history of Hawaii over the past 226 years, nobody within academic circles really wants to talk about it.

I reached out to five experts and professors in Hawaiian history or cultural studies at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa, and received little to nothing in result. One professor, an expert in Hawaiian history and culture, told me that not only did he not have anything to do with the subject, he also didn’t know anyone in the local academic community who did. The same statements came from experts in Hawaiian culture who worked for the state government, all unable to provide background on okolehao’s history or its cultural significance.

Perhaps one answer lies in a 1990 academic article published in Contemporary Drug Problems. The article, titled "Ka Wai Kau Mai O Maleka Water from America: The Intoxication of the Hawai'ian People," is a striking statement about the hardships wrought on the Hawaiians since alcohol was first introduced to the islands in the late 18th century — suggesting that okolehao’s history and its place in the Hawaiian culture is that of pariah, not paladin.

While eventually we might see more academic authorities truly study oke's cultural importance, the cocktail crowd is already excited. Jones, an "early adapter" of Hawaiian Moonshine, thinks the reproduction of okolehao is a boon, one that "can only help Hawaii further expand and differentiate itself in the beverage industry." One thing is clear: cocktail enthusiasts aren't waiting for the academics to catch up.

Clint Lanier is a professor of English at New Mexico State University, a freelance spirit writer, and co-author of Bucket List Bars: Historic Saloons, Pubs and Dives of America. Kim Sielbeck is an art director, illustrator, and textile designer based in Brooklyn.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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