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.
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.
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
“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.
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 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
Kona Wine Market, Kailua-Kona, HI
Island Distillers’ Hawaiian Moonshine is not yet distributed outside of Hawaii, but you can buy it online direct form the distillery here:
Search for okolehao elsewhere at 1000 corks: https://1000corks.com/search?st=okolehao
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.
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.
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