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Okolehao Then and Now

Okolehao Then and Now
To Unlock its Secrets, You Need the Ki

Ahh, Hawaii, the land of chill vibes and warm breezes. Picture the drink you might hold in your hand as you await the green flash at sunset. It’s a Mai Tai, right? It would almost have to be a rum-based drink—it’s what we associate with the islands, and as sugar grows so easily there, it makes perfect sense.

But it wasn’t always so. If you visited the islands in the 1930’s, you likely would have been served a drink made with Hawaii’s truly indigenous spirit: okolehao (oh-KOH-lay-how). Crafted from the root of the ti plant (cordyline fruticosa, a member of the asparagus family) okolehao was enjoyed by a diverse set of imbibers from kings to commoners.

Ti Root Package

All the way up until the 1980’s okolehao was a common souvenir item purchased by mainlanders on their way off the island—the Taiwanese ceramic bottle often being the real prize. And then suddenly…it was gone.

With okolehao quality dipping for decades, few lamented its disappearance from store shelves, but then came the tiki folks. Armed with recipes from Beachbum Berry for okolehao drinks with names like Bali Hai, Polynesian Paralysis, and Happy Buddha, there was once again a burgeoning interest in okolehao.

Fortunately for tiki culture, the artisanal distilling movement was building momentum on a parallel path, and now after a decades-long absence, Hawaii is once again making okolehao. But given the wide variety of historical okolehao formulations, is today’s okolehao a suitable replacement for tiki recipes, or is it something completely different? Is it better? In order to understand the differences, a little history lesson was in order.

Vintage Okolehao Bottles

Photo courtesy Sven Kirsten

History of Okolehao Production

In the 1780’s, English sailors on Hawaii found everything their hearts desired except booze, so they decided to make it themselves. Captain Nathaniel Portlock dug up roots of the ti plant, baked them in an earthen oven (imu) to convert starches to sugars, added water and let it ferment with wild yeast into a ti root beer. At just a few percent alcohol, the brew wasn’t potent, but it got the job done.

About a decade later, an escaped convict from Australia named William Stevenson took things up a notch when he taught native Hawaiians the art and science of distillation. Using the ti root beer as his wash and a crude distillation apparatus made from two whaler’s try-pots (iron cauldrons used to render whale blubber) he made the first batch of ti root distillate. Because the two try-pots next to one another resembled a person’s backside, the Hawaiians called the resulting spirit okolehao, which translates roughly as “iron bottom”. Thus, Hawaii’s folk spirit was created (by a haole).

Armed with the knowledge of distillation and a newfound love for spirit, Hawaiians began making their own okolehao, and various recipes were developed over time. One of the biggest innovations was the use of other sugar sources in the mash bill, including sugar cane, rice, pineapple, and taro. Given that ti roots were often massive and difficult to unearth, it’s easy to imagine why alternatives were sought. The new ingredients would have undoubtedly softened the vegetal tone of the ti root, and insodoing changed the very definition of okolehao.

Over time, other European spirit-making methods made their way to Hawaii including better stills and oak aging. Just like rum and whiskey, aging okolehao in charred oak imparted tannins, vanillin, and other desirable compounds into the spirit, adding flavors not present in the mash bill. Further mellowing of the spirit came from transpiration: alcohol escaping the barrel through the pores of the wood (the Angel’s share). So fine did Hawaii’s okolehao become, that a bottle smuggled into the 1889 Paris World Exposition by Eben Low won a bronze medal for the Hawaiian delegation.

While some were making fine aged okolehao, it’s widely assumed that the majority of Hawaiian distilleries were making what would have been considered “moonshine”. Indeed, Hawaii’s legal framework would have necessitated clandestine production during periods where the Hawaiian Monarchy or Territorial Government prohibited alcohol production. The most notable “dry” period, of course was 1918-1933, during which time the Big Island’s Waipio Valley became a hotbed for illegal okolehao production.

With the end of Prohibition and the American military buildup across Hawaii, demand for spirits increased dramatically. The United States’ entry into World War II created scarcity issues for all commercial products, and okolehao quality decreased proportionally as inexperienced distillers’ hastily made hooch entered the market. The poor quality of mid-forties okolehao coupled with the availability of cheap, high quality rum from the Caribbean all but crushed the demand for the local spirit.

Mid-century Hawaii enjoyed increased tourism from the mainland, and it was around this time that the definition of okolehao changed yet again as Hawaiian Distillers began importing Kentucky Bourbon as the base for its products. While no definitive evidence exists to support this assertion, it is the widely held belief among those in the know. Upon receipt in Hawaii, the Bourbon was flavored with ti in some way, perhaps with a ti root tincture or ti root sugar syrup. Much of this “faux-kolehao” was bottled in elaborate ceramic bottles made in Taiwan—designs included hula dancers, tikis, and King Kamehameha himself, among others.

While some backyard distillers undoubtedly continued to make high quality okolehao, the Bourbon-based beverage became the new standard. At least as far as the tourists were concerned, this is what okolehao was, and production of this variety continued at least through the 1960s.

In addition to the products from Hawaiian Distillers, there was a commercial okolehao made on the Big Island by a company called Ti Root Okolehao Hawaii, Incorporated. They produced at least two products—a white 80 proof okolehao and a brown 86 proof okolehao.

There are no published accounts of the brown okolehao’s flavor (bottle photos on Tiki Central here) but I was able to procure a mini bottle of the white version. As the bottle bears a type of IRS tax stamp discontinued in July of 1960, we can deduce that this bottle was produced sometime before then. The flavor is very similar to a white rum, and that is undoubtedly the base spirit here. There is just a hint of vegetal phenolics that would indicate the presence of ti root, but whatever is there is not pronounced.

What Did Historical Okolehao Taste Like?

Because I had no access to historical okolehao beyond the small sample from Ti Root Okolehao Hawaii, I decided to ask some experts who had tasted other varieties. Here’s what they said:

“The one I have is bottled in bond and on oak for 22 years (distilled 1917, bottled 1939). It’s definitely ti root and probably some sugar cane and pineapple. I’d say the notes of mine are almost a blend of rye and brandy: fruity but peppery.” – Martin Cate; bartender, tiki drink expert, owner of Smuggler’s Cove

Photo of Martin Cate’s bottle, courtesy Paul Etter

“The stuff I’ve tried — Hawaiian Distillers product from the 1960s mostly — tasted great.  It probably was just flavored whiskey, but it tasted like a really fine brandy, and whatever flavor they added was unique, subtle, and delicious.” Jeff “Beachbum” Berry; author, alcohol archaeologist, tiki drink expert

“Sometime in the 1950’s or 1960’s…Hawaiian Distillers began importing cheap bourbon, adding flavoring, and bottling this as Okolehao.  I have some of these bottles and have tasted all I can
find.  There is no ti root in these products, only bourbon.” – Jim Sargent; distiller, okolehao maker, co-founder of Haleakala Distillers

“The okolehao marketed by Hawaiian Distillers in the 1960s and 1970s was a flavored whiskey from the mainland.  I don’t know where they came up with the recipe, but it wasn’t good.” – Dave Flintstone; distiller, okolehao maker, founder of Island Distillers

Further to these perceptions, I found quotes from others who had tasted the elusive elixir:

“It didn’t taste like anything you’ve ever tasted before. It was smooth and very well made.” – Philip Howell; former vice squad officer with the Honolulu Police Department who raided dozens of illegal Oahu still operations in the early 1940s

“I have tasted it. I won’t tell you where I got it, but it’s like drinking a strong brandy.” – Aiona Abbott; University of Hawai’i botany professor

Modern Okolehao Production

In the 1970s, Hawaiian Distillers appears to have changed the formula to a liqueur. In 1987, California-based spirits bottler LaVecke Corporation took over Hawaiian Distillers, and continued the sale of the okolehao liqueur for several years before ceasing production.

Between the early 1990s and the early 2000s, no one made legal okolehao of any type. There was a glimmer of hope in 2003, when former Brown-Foreman President Steve Thompson partnered with the LeVecke Corporation to form Sandwich Islands Distilling—Thompson claimed to have an old recipe from his time working on Molokai in the mid-1960s. Several newspapers in Hawaii carried their story, going so far as to share the mash bill, which was to be 25% ti root, 20% rice, and 55% cane sugar—all grown in Hawaii. They were planning to make both a straight 140 proof okolehao as well as an 80 proof liqueur. For reasons unknown, neither version ever made it to market.

But in 2005, things changed when Jim Sargent founded Haleakala Distillers on the site of an old dairy in upcountry Maui. In addition to rum, he and his wife Leslie decided to return okolehao to the market, and in 2009, the spirit of the islands was once again flowing out of a Hawaiian distillery.

Rather than a high proof aged okolehao, Haleakala’s okolehao is an 80 proof liqueur that includes a significant percentage of ti root distillate. The Sargents source their ti roots locally from a farm in East Maui; the cane sugar is also from Maui.  I asked Jim Sargent why they went with a liqueur rather than a straight ti root product:

“We released the liqueur first because the federal regulator would not approve a pure ti product at that time.  By using a percentage of ti distillate along with neutral cane spirit and local sugar, we were able to get a formula approved at long last to offer something as close as possible to the traditional product.”

As a liqueur, Haleakala Distillers’ okolehao is predictably sweet, but its complexity pushes through the sugar yielding a unique flavor profile that includes a phenolic vegetal taste that comes from the ti root. Some say it’s like a cross between rum and tequila, but that description, while convenient, does a poor job of relaying the actual flavor profile. In truth, you must taste it to know how it tastes (it’s quite good).

In 2012, another okolehao entered the marketplace via Oahu’s Island Distillers, thereby increasing the number of okolehao choices by 100%. Packaged in a stoneware flip-top bottle, Island Distillers’ 100 proof “Hawaiian Moonshine” okolehao took a completely different approach to its formula. I asked the distiller Dave Flintstone to explain his thought process on the recipe:

“My product is based on what I think the original okolehao was like: a high proof spirit of ti root and sugar cane, unaged.  It would have had a light flavor, with no overpowering sweetness or heavy aromas.  Based on my research and extrapolation, I believe my product is an accurate modern version of the original.”

Try a taste of Dave’s okolehao, and you’d agree he met his goal of a high proof, light spirit. In contrast to Haleakala’s product, it’s less sweet, has a much “hotter” entry, and bears just a hint of ti root flavor. It’s a lot of fun to use as a white rum replacement.

Okolehao in Tiki Drinks

 

Comparing the flavor profiles of the two new okolehao with those of the historical varieties, one would have to conclude that neither is a direct replacement for the type called for in mid-century tiki drinks.  Given that the three okolehao drinks in Beachbum Berry’s Tiki+ app were all created around 1960, it’s safe to assume that the creators were using a bourbon-based product, not genuine okolehao.

Screenshot from Tiki+ iPhone App

Does this mean there is an opening in the market for a bourbon-based “faux-kolehao” to satisfy the tiki purists? What of the pre-WWII variety? Perhaps a baked ti root tincture or ti sugar syrup could be added to a mix of rye and cognac to approximate the flavor of the finer aged version? These are questions without answers for now, but enterprising tiki mixologists are sure to experiment.

Okolehao’s Future

Okolehao has undergone many changes since its introduction in 1790; formulas for spirits change over time, and Hawaii’s folk spirit is certainly no different. Consider for example the evolution of gin from a malty Genever to sweet Old Tom to London Dry and finally to today’s New American gins. They’re all cut from the same cloth, but each one represents a distinct style that has a unique place in the drinks universe.

But with spirits, the evolutionary timeline is not one way—consider for example that there are more Genevers and Old Tom gins on the market today than fifty years ago. This reporter hopes to see the same sort of exploration in the world of okolehao, where historic versions of the spirit include various combinations of ti root, sugar, pineapple, taro or other island fermentables. Customized yeast strains could be developed, and high quality distillate could once again rest in oak barrels across the islands. Perhaps the TTB could even reaffirm okolehao as a unique class of spirit where the principal defining characteristic is ti root flavor.

So while the future of okolehao is still an open question, it would appear that its day in the sun has finally arrived. One thing is certain: the Hawaiian folk spirit will continue to occupy the minds of curious spirit lovers on and off the islands for many years to come.

Where to Buy Okolehao Online

While the best place to buy okolehao is in Hawaii, most of us aren’t fortunate enough to live there. Luckily it can be found online. Assuming your state allows liquor shipments, you could have your own bottle in no time. Here are two sources for Haleakala Distillers’ okolehao liqueur:

Hi Time Wine Cellars, Costa Mesa, CA

http://www.hitimewine.net/MAUI-OKOLEHAO-LIQUEUR-750.html

Kona Wine Market, Kailua-Kona, HI

http://www.konawineclub.com/r/products/haleakala-maui-okolehao-liqueur

Island Distillers’ Hawaiian Moonshine is not yet distributed outside of Hawaii, but you can buy it online direct form the distillery here:

http://www.islanddistillers.com/store/#!/~/product/category=0&id=18203952

Search for okolehao elsewhere at 1000 corks: https://1000corks.com/search?st=okolehao

Cocktail Suggestion

If you’re lucky enough to have both the Haleakala and Island Distillers Okolehao, here is a recipe I think you’ll enjoy:

Mt. Holy Oke

2 oz. Hawaiian Moonshine Okolehao
.5 oz Maui Okolehao Liqueur
1 oz fresh squeezed lime juice
.5 oz Sugar cane syrup
6 drops  Bittermen’s Elemakule Tiki bitters

Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.

Mt. Holy Oke Cocktail

Mahalo

Big mahalos go out to Jim Sargent, Dave Flintstone, Jeff Berry and Martin Cate for their help with this article. Thanks also to Sven Kirsten and Paul Etter for the use of their photos.

Sources

Okolehao: Maui distillery serves up a sip of history

http://mauinews.com/page/content.detail/id/527105.html

Haleakala Distillers Okolehao Liqueur

http://www.mauitime.com/Articles-i-2009-12-31-71979.113117_Haleakala_Distillers_Okolehao_Liqueur.html

Valley Isle goes lolo for oke
http://www.mauiweekly.com/page/content.detail/id/500896/Valley-Isle-goes-lolo-for-oke.html

In High Spirits: Okolehao is making a comeback
http://www.honolulumagazine.com/Honolulu-Magazine/June-2010/In-High-Spirits/

Will new ‘okolehao be your cup of ti?
http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2003/Jun/01/ln/ln05a.html
Isles’ unique booze named for iron pots
http://www.staradvertiser.com/featurespremium/20111204__Isles_unique_booze_named_for_iron_pots.html?id=134983028

Wikipedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okolehao

29 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2013 1:34 pm

    Great article. Big hat tip for presenting a detailed roundup of a spirit I had only glancingly heard about before.

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      April 23, 2013 8:01 am

      Thanks very much, Lance!

  2. April 23, 2013 6:54 am

    Now I know why Berry recommended subbing in bourbon in his books… it never made sense before.

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      April 23, 2013 8:03 am

      Thanks for reading! I only wish there was more information out there. Speaking of which, Randy Wong emailed me a couple of microfiche copies of old newspaper articles he dug up at the public library on Oahu. There are a few tidbits in there that I’ll include in an epilogue when I get a moment. Cheers

  3. tanuki permalink
    May 18, 2013 5:52 pm

    Wow! Awesome article, and quite a bit of effort on your part Josh. Your mana’o meshes entirely with what little knowledge I have. Some thoughts that may be of interest:

    Baked ti root was a thing in Hawai’i from pre-contact times. Kaimuki, on O’ahu, is named after the ti root ovens that were there (ka imu ki).

    King Kalakaua was supposed to have been fond of okolehao, and promoted it as Hawai’i’s national liquor. I’m guessing that he was behind the Paris Expo exploit.

    I would posit that the nature of okoloehao varied not only with time, but with location, considerably. The availability of ingredients and the local knowledge would certainly be different. Based on those factors, I would most like to have tried some of the Waipi’o Valley stuff…

    Vanilla beans were used as a flavoring from early on. Tucked in the back of Makaha Valley, there’s a spot where vanilla vines grow wild, supposedly a remnant from a distilling operation back in the day. I don’t know if it’s true, but I remember reading that vanilla was first brought to Hawai’i specifically for okolehao.

    Anything that Auntie Isabella Aiona Abbott says is golden.

    My friend’s dad had an empty ceramic bottle of the mid-century bourbon stuff, he didn’t care for it at all. He also claimed to have tried the real thing and said that it was very very strong.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of hold-out moonshiners in some of the more out-of-the-way Hawaiian communites. I’ll be on the Big Island for a few days next month… maybe I’ll ask the Kalapana crew if anybody get…

    Again, mahalo piha for this excellent article.

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      May 18, 2013 7:05 pm

      Mahalo nui loa, Tanuki! Great additional insights. If you find any sources on the Big Island, let me know 🙂

  4. tanuki permalink
    May 18, 2013 6:09 pm

    Also fwiw, here’s a margarita-ish cocktail I came up with a while back. It’s meant to use the Haleakala Distillers okolehao.

    ka Makalika:

    1 oz lime juice

    3 oz okolehao

    1.5 oz Clement Creole Shrubb

    2 slices ginger root, julienned into a bunch of strips

    Shake like hell with a bunch of ice, pour into a frozen goblet-y glass that has been rimmed with alae salt, garnish with a lime slice.

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      May 18, 2013 7:06 pm

      Sounds good! Will have to give that a try. Cheers

  5. tanuki permalink
    June 16, 2013 9:29 pm

    Okay, just back from the Big Island. Saw a bottle of the Ti Root Okolehao Hawaii okolehao in the locked case at Kadota Liquors in Hilo. It looked like it might have been opened, and there was maybe 1/5 of the bottle missing, so I didn’t bother inquiring about the price they might have wanted.

    I did pick up a bottle of the Hawaiian Distillers’ Hawaiian Moonshine Okolehao. I agree that it is certainly much hotter, but the underlying flavor is very nice. I think that an aged version of this would be a beautiful thing, akin to a proper anejo tequila. I hope that 2 year and 5 year versions are on Mr. Flintstone’s agenda (is the dude’s name really Flintstone? Kudos to him for hanging with it).

    As for the “tiki purists,” at the risk of being a dick, I say let them drink crap bourbon if that’s what they’re pining for. I will hope that the okolehao renaissance (such as it is) will not be about catering to the latent colonialism of ’50s nostalgia.

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      June 17, 2013 7:43 am

      Thanks for that, Tanuki! I agree with the Bourbon sentiment. I got a “hula girl” mini decanter of the mid-century stuff recently, and it is almost certainly nothing more than Bourbon. I didn’t detect any ti root flavor at all. The new “Moonshine” would be a good candidate for a micro-aging project. Cheers

  6. tanuki permalink
    June 17, 2013 6:37 pm

    Turns out the Hawaiian Distillers’ Hawaiian Moonshine Okolehao makes for a really interesting mule. Now what to name it… “Ka Pōlua” or maybe “Dark and So what brah you going sue me?”

  7. tanuki permalink
    June 17, 2013 6:46 pm

    Aha: the “Kona Nightingale.”

  8. July 5, 2013 4:11 am

    Josh, this is the kind of writing and research so desperately needed. Until one understands the real history and tradition – not the marketing stories – of a spirit, one cannot possibly understand and appreciate it. This is true for all spirits. Unfortunately, few drinkers actually understand how rum came to the Caribbean, how it spread and how it led to the basic styles of rum.

    This is a terrific history of a spirit I’d never heard of Okolehao – which should appeal to me as I’m a well known okolehao-man, lol. Funny, but I was just researching other “rums” from the Indian Ocean and western Pacific and learned that in these areas – like Hawaii – rice was a common part of the mash bill. That was called arrack,whose home was the once largest sugar producer in the world: Java, under control of the Dutch.

    The arrack there was produced and shipped by the E&A Scheer Co. of the Netherlands who it is fair to say, is by far the oldest continuously and consistently produced rum based spirit in the world. Older than Mount Gay, and more consistent. Their cane and rice-based arrack is aged for 3 to 4 years in Java, and another 4 to 6 years in the Netherlands. Scheer is still owned by the same family, who resisted Diageo et al, and are fanatical about their quality and consistency.

    Great stuff Josh, keep it up! I’m a fan.

  9. July 5, 2013 8:10 am

    Great article Josh! finally i got to read the history of the oke. I think now when i go back to Nola i should order a bottle of the Moonshine Okolehau when i have my chance. btw how do you make baked to roots? and if i`d want to make ti root syrup, could i just get the right ti plant and boil the roots with sugar and water?

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      July 5, 2013 10:30 am

      Thanks, Tiare! I got some ti roots from a store and baked them at 350°F for about an hour. I made a a white rum infusion with those. I haven’t tried to make a syrup, but I think you’d still need to bake them in order to get the right flavor. Not sure you’d get that from boiling. The baked version smells just like sugar cookies. Cheers

  10. Dalet Wine & Spirits permalink
    September 27, 2013 4:11 pm

    Haleakala Okolehao is now available in California. Contact Dalet Wine & Spriits to get into your local store or bar and restuarant.

  11. January 4, 2014 8:17 am

    Thanks for making okolehau not much of a drinker but was all ways curious about okolehau. For New Year’s Day I wanted to try some moon shine cause I seen it at Foodland a couple months ago, so happen I seen a bottle of okolehau I got very excited. Bought a bottle and enjoyed it very much mahalo honolulu distillers . Will seek Maui okolehau and try it another time lateral be for my birthday in April ,mahalo and aloha

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      January 17, 2014 2:54 pm

      Mahalo for your mana’o, Lloyd!

  12. Stefanie permalink
    October 19, 2015 9:23 am

    I have one of the 3-piece tiki decanters and am interested in selling it. My grandparents got it during a trip to Hawaii…I’m not sure when. It is still sealed with the liquor inside. Any suggestions?

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      October 19, 2015 10:46 am

      Hi Stefanie–I bought a similar one on eBay. You can sell it there–it will definitely find a good home. Just don’t specifically say it’s full in the item description. Take photos of the unbroken tax stamp and folks will know what’s up. Pomaika’i!

  13. Stefanie permalink
    October 19, 2015 11:19 am

    Hi Josh! I appreciate you taking the time to reply. Ebay was really the only thing I could think of to reach the most people. It’s a sentimental item as my grandparents have both passed, but you know how things go. I really enjoyed reading the information you posted in your article. Mahalo nui loa!

  14. Ricky Escalera permalink
    April 25, 2016 1:25 pm

    Great info thank you, I live in California Santa Barbara and I have cordyline fruticosa plants that grow very well here with no care and little water, as I give more care to them and the cuttings I am able to grow some large plants, I would love to make some home made with sugar cane and pineapple I also have. If anyone is interested in making this with me here in SB that would be great, maybe we can have our own distillery here, these ti plants I have are doing very well in my climate. SBRickE6@yahoo.com

  15. Karen ottino permalink
    February 4, 2017 9:49 am

    I also have the black 3 piece brought back years ago from Hawaii , mine has been half drank , but would like to sell it , what is about the going price to ask ?

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      February 5, 2017 10:03 am

      Hi Karen–they sell anywhere from about $50 to $80. Check out eBay. I saw one there about a week ago. Cheers

Trackbacks

  1. New Article: Okolehao Then and Now | Inu a Kena
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