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Tiki’s Lost “Hawaiian Whiskey”

Drawing comparisons to bourbon, Hawaii’s okolehao was once an integral ingredient to a number of tiki drinks. Is it poised for a revival?

As a fanbase, tiki proponents are particularly tenacious in their pursuit of the flavors of the past. New expressions of rum have been invented with the explicit purpose of replicating the blend used in Trader Vic’s 1950s Mai Tai; enthusiasts have dedicated countless hours crafting approximations of the extinct Kohala Bay, a staple in the secretive Black Magic cocktail at the Mai Kai; and modern bartenders have called on acid-adjusted citrus to better represent the greater pungency of midcentury grapefruits.

But there’s one ingredient that even the obsessive interest of the tiki cohort cannot seem to resurrect: okolehao.

The only native spirit of Hawaii, okolehao, commonly known as oke, is, in essence, Hawaiian moonshine. And like moonshine everywhere, it was historically produced from whatever was abundant and cheap. In 19th-century Hawaii, this often meant the ti plant, but distillates might also include taro, rice, bran or any combination of other local fermentables. According to Matthew Rowley, historian and author of Moonshine!, the result was often referred to as “white mule” or “Hawaiian whiskey” and carried a “characteristic funky taste.” 

A number of tiki recipes, dating to as early as the 1930s, call for the Hawaiian ti distillate—notably the Halekulani Cocktail from the House Without a Key Lounge in Waikiki Beach and early versions of the Scorpion, which inspired Trader Vic’s recipe. Until recently, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the author of tiki’s primary historiographies, proposed using bourbon as a substitute for the extinct okolehao. It’s an odd choice at first glance, but one that makes sense given that when E.H. Edwards established the first and only legal distillery of okolehao in 1906, he also began the practice of barrel-aging the spirit. (Prior to that, Rowley notes, okolehao was almost always ageless: “When it’s the illicit kind, you want to get it either out of your hands or into your belly as quickly as possible so it doesn’t tend to get aged.”)

By the 1960s, okolehao was rarely being distilled from fermented ti root. Instead, producers were, according to Rowley, approximating the spirit by flavoring mainland whiskey with ti extract to avoid the labor of harvesting ti roots. Indeed, Rowley notes a likeness between bourbon and okolehao, even in un-aged expressions of oke: “There’s a sort of pleasing sweetness about okolehao,” he says, “it’s not cloying and it’s not syrupy or anything like that… there’s that commonality between them.”

With historic precedent, ample natural resources and a number of recipes that call for it by name, why hasn’t there been a resurgence in okolehao?

For Rowley, the answer comes down to economics. “The market hasn’t been proven yet,” he says, adding that ti, the essential component of okolehao, while abundant throughout Hawaii and much of Polynesia, is prized more for its leaves than its roots. Citing a 2004 report from the Department of Agriculture, Rowley notes that the 41 farms dedicated to ti production focus almost entirely on its leaves, producing 7.2 million cut ti leaves for medical and decorative purposes. “When most of the use of the plant is its leaves, you can pick the leaves and it will still live and produce more leaves,” says Rowley, “but once you dig it up to roast the root and ferment and distill it, that’s it. Killing the plant essentially might be like killing the golden goose.”

While the market remains to be proven, interest from the bar world does not. “There are several oke cocktail recipes I’ve published that tiki bartenders… would like to try as they were meant to be made,” says Berry. “It would also have the benefit of being an all-new base spirit that jaded craft cocktail folk—on both sides of the bar—could get excited about.”

They’re not the only ones interested in bringing it back. In 2012, Dave Flintstone of Honolulu’s Island Distillers introduced okolehao to his lineup of Hawaiian spirits, becoming the only commercial producer of okolehao in the world (though it is still not distributed outside Hawaii). He notes, however, that his intent had little to do with appealing to the tiki masses. “My goal with Hawaiian okolehao was to reintroduce a 19th-century spirit,” he says. “The myth and lore of [okolehao] intrigued me for years. It took a while, and a lot of research, to recreate what was being consumed in the mid-1800s,” he says, echoing a common narrative behind much of tiki’s resurgence, which relied heavily on the determination and research of a few dedicated individuals.

Whether it will find its way back into recipes on a large scale remains to be seen. Flintstone notes that he’s received “complimentary messages from tiki folks” but that local bartenders are often unaware of its history and how to use it. “It is not vodka, not rum, not whiskey—it is in a category all it’s own,” he says.

Still, Berry is adamant that genuine okolehao will find a welcome audience should it ever reach the mainland, because, he says, “Things go better with oke!”

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