Friday, November 1, 2013

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Swipes, the Pruno of Territorial Hawaii

"Honolulu's Queer Dope"
Omaha Daily Bee
30 September 1900
Swipes may sound like some modern cleaning product, but, in fact, the term refers to a style of intoxicating drinks from mid- to late-nineteenth century Hawaii. We are fortunate, perhaps, that swipes seem extinct.

An analogy for those who have spent time in the California penal system; swipes were the pruno of territorial Hawaii — by all accounts, low-alcohol brew made, at its best, from sweet potatoes, honey, sugar, molasses, bread fruit, and other produce or cane products brewers and bootleggers could get their hands on. The ingredients, however, were classic moonshine ingredients; anything fermentable, nearby, and cheap went into the pot. At its worst, the stuff was a toxic slop adulterated by unscrupulous bootleggers for desperate classes of drinkers.

A 1900 article on 'Honolulu's Queer Dope' (see right) reports that drinkers develop a "terrible thirst" but that the water they drink brings on fresh waves of intoxication. "It is said that four or five glasses of doctored swipes will keep a man drunk for two or three days if water is taken after awakening from the drunken sleep."

I mention swipes because they wander into some of the territory normally reserved for the rhetorical excesses of moonshine opponents. The adulterations especially — the cayenne pepper, and kerosene, and whatnot — that were added to fake potency resonate with the adulterations attributed to moonshiners and bootleggers on the Mainland. The reputation of swipes parallels that of modern inner-city moonshine: only a fool or someone too poor to afford properly made alcohol would drink it.

An 1899 article sets up swipes, garnished with the paternalism and racism of the time:
Swipes cause the police more trouble than all other police court factors put together. If you ask an experienced police court magistrate what the stuff is made of he will reply by asking you what it isn’t made of. In its purest state it is fermented from taro, rice, bread crust or anything else that contains starch. But fermentation from such materials is too slow a process to meet emergencies in which swipes are called on. The native in his domestic and primitive social life hasn't the forethought to set his taro fermenting against the time when he will be called on to extend hospitality to some chance visitor, or provide a luau for his neighbors who unexpectedly call.

The emergency arises and to meet it he goes to some Chinaman or renegade Hawaiian who has descended to the degradation of avarice and for a quarter gets a generous bottle of as vile a compound as ever wrecked a sound constitution or deranged nervous system. To a basis of fermented taro has been added kerosene, cayenne pepper, fusel oil and methylated spirits, till [sic] an oblivion of intellect, accompanied by maniacal combativeness, quickly follows its use. 
It is a most disastrous drink, as many of the soldiers who stop here on their way to Manila and accepted the hospitality of chance native Hawaiian acquaintance found to their sorrow.
~ Omaha Daily Bee, 17 January, 1899

Normally, I like to share historical recipes. You'll understand if I skip it this time.

Goes well with:
  • The 1900 article above mentions pineapple as a sometimes-ingredient of swipes. That's not what we use it for around here. More likely, we'll make vinegar out of pineapple (especially after using the hollowed-out fruit for tiki drink mugs) or pickle them. 
  • Visiting sailors and desperate drinkers aren't the only ones to his the sauce in Hawaii. In 1911, the Hawaiian Star printed a tall tale of feral hogs getting into a batch of the local moonshine known as okolehao.
  • What's pruno? You don't know? Aren't you sweet? Eric Gillin explains


Sylvan said...

Author of 1900 newspaper article seems unclear on distillation. Mentions both 'native stills' and lack of a 'distiller's license', but then goes on to describe simple fermentation, even comparing it undistilled pulque. So, was 'swipes' typically distilled or not?

And is Filipino 'beno' any good?

Matthew Rowley said...

Hey Sylvan ~

Swipes were always fermented; the distilled spirit of the islands was okolehao, a polynesian analog to mainland moonshine, although like port wine, cider royal, or even a simple boiler maker, fermented and distilled products from the area sometimes found their ways into the same drink. The key to understanding that line is when the author writes about the addition of "hot stuff" to (fermented) swipes — the result it still swipes, but the adulterated or 'doctored' form is what most often made newspapers of the day; low abv stuff mixed with kerosene, hot pepper, tobacco, and god knows what else (formalin?) to give it a kick. Sometimes even okolehao.

Beno (a dialect version of Spanish 'vino') on the other hand was made from fermented rice and flavored with anise. Charles H. Baker has a lot of Filipino drinks in his Gentleman's Companion (or at least drinks made while he was in the Philippines), some with an anise component ~ when I'm back in the office, I'll dig around to see if there may be a connection.