Friday, January 17, 2014

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Okolehao, Historic and Modern

Many drinkers prefer it to gin (1912 ad)
One week in September of 1886, the Deputy Sheriff in Maui rounded up fourteen men the Honolulu Daily Bulletin called “illicit dealers in the ardent.” The ardent in this case was okolehao, the Hawaiian analog of mainland moonshines. Early journalists called it white mule and Hawaiian whiskey — although it wasn’t really whiskey. Not yet. That came later.

A handful of cocktail recipes calling for okolehao show up in the historical record. If you read Jeff "Beachbum" Berry’s books on tiki drinks, however, you will learn, perhaps with disappointment, that okolehao is extinct. Berry suggests a few substitutions — he proposed Martinique rum at first, but later recommended bourbon or rye — and there’s a reason. We'll circle back around to that. He wasn’t wrong; when he wrote the books, oke, as some call it, had fallen from production.

Like a lot of other discarded spirits these days, okolehao is back. In fact, in the summer of 2013, attendees of my standing room only talk on moonshine at Tiki Oasis in San Diego sampled a twist on a whiskey sour made with a modern take on the old spirit: 100-proof okolehao from Island Distillers in Honolulu. It’s a cane and ti-root distillate that's earthy, vegetal, and a little funky.

Hawaiian Moonshine

Distillation seems to have come to Hawaii in the 1790’s. I say “seems to” not because the date is uncertain, but because Hawaiians seem not to have distilled spirits at all until then. That changed when William Stevenson, an escaped convict from Australia, used rendering pots from a whaling ship as the boiler for a rudimentary still. The iron pots were said to resemble a woman’s plump backside and the nickname “iron bottom” stuck. In the local language, “iron bottom” was "okolehao" and the stuff eventually became nearly as popular as the bit of anatomy that inspired it.

Like moonshines in general, okolehao didn’t have a single recipe. There were as many ways to make it as there were stills and distillers. Any single batch might contain distillates of taro, rice, honey, corn, bran, sweet potatoes, kiawe beans, molasses, breadfruit — whatever was nearby and cheap and could be fermented. If pineapples were cheap, it had pineapples in it. If white table sugar were cheap, then that’s what distillers used.

Ti plant, courtesy of Dave Flintstone,
Island Distillers
But one thing held this island mule together in a way that mainland moonshines, in their diversity, did not and do not have — a single, defining, ingredient: ti. From the day Stevenson made that first batch until now, regardless of other ingredients it may contain, ti is at the heart of Hawaiian moonshine. For countless visitors over the last century, taking home a bottle of okolehao — or at least taking one as far back as the ship where it was emptied before next landfall — was a reminder of their time in that Pacific paradise.

Ti shrubs grow throughout Hawaii. It is also called ki especially in 19th century accounts. The botanical name is Cordyline fruticosa and historical accounts boast of “inexhaustible” supplies. The leaves have medicinal and decorative uses, but the big, starchy root is what is what we’re interested in.

On mature plants, these roots are huge; they can grow to 25 kilos or more, bigger than a lot of dogs. Dave Flintstone, distiller at Island Distillers, says that when harvesters select plants for his okolehao, they look for those with a central stalk about the thickness of a man’s wrist.

After workers unearth them, the roots are baked in underground ovens called imus. If you are familiar with how tequila is made, you’ll see the resemblance to how agave hearts — the piñas — are roasted in kilns or ovens.

Freshly unearthed ti root,
courtesy of Dave Flintstone, Island Distillers
In each case, starches convert to sugars under heat and the whole thing is crushed and fermented. Distillers run the low-alcohol ti root wash through stills to concentrate the ethanol but collect those compounds that give okolehao its characteristic funky taste and distinctive smell.

In fact, okolehao’s smell could be a problem for distillers, haulers, and customers. That distinctive aroma often tipped off law enforcement to nearby stills and mash tubs, or confirmed that a container had held okolehao and not, for instance, whiskey or water. When caught red-handed in towns with their illicit cargo, Hawaiian bootleggers often smashed the glass demijohns they used to transport their haul to the ground in attempts to destroy damning evidence. This dodge was so common that during the 1920’s, one catty journalist suggested that officers should be issued sponges so they could mop up evidence and squeeze it into vials before it trickled away.

When police did capture okolehao, though, it had a habit of transforming in evidence holding rooms. Old reports note that quantities of the local moonshine remained the same, but in storage, the proof sometimes mysteriously would go down. Any kid who’s drunk her parents’ liquor and topped off the bottles with water knows exactly what happened in those police storage units; somebody inside was pilfering the hooch.

Holy Terror Hitchcock:
not a fan of the oke
It worked in reverse, too. Not only did hooch disappear, it sometimes showed up where it did not belong. In the mid-1890’s, the Marshal in charge of enforcing laws in the short-lived Republic of Hawaii was Edward Griffin Hitchcock. Known as “Holy Terror” Hitchcock, he was the top law enforcement officer in the islands. The nickname “Holy Terror” came from his efficiency in rounding up criminals, but the moniker was also a poke at his family; his father had been a missionary and the younger Hitchcock kept ties to Hawaii's missionary community.

In 1894, Marshal Hitchcock issued a letter to owners and managers of every place in the islands that sold liquor. In it, he schooled them on Hawaiian law and reminded them of the fines that could be levied on any person who sold adulterated liquor.

The adulteration in this case was okolehao. Rumors were going around that saloon keepers had been stretching their stocks of imported liquor with the local moonshine. The Hawaiian Star newspaper explained the next day that
Okolehao is very cheap and, containing such a large per cent of alcohol, can be employed in the preparation of drinks to immense pecuniary advantage. It was at one time, if not now, used in the preparation of wine. An extract was imported to which diluted okolehao was added in such quantities as to bring the alcoholic property up very high.
So what we have is a wine extract coming from California that’s got very little, if any, alcohol in it. Local merchants would add okolehao and water. Give it a stir and what've you got? Wine! Adding both high-proof okolehao and water to imported whiskey — maybe with caramel to bring back a semblance of barrel-aging — was a way to cheat customers and squeeze more profit out of every drink sold.

Swapping out moonshine for legal liquor is underhanded and illegal. And it is a trick that is still done in some bars — especially for customers too drunk to notice that their vodka is more white mule than Grey Goose.

Despite those early reports of “inexhaustible” supplies of ti plants, harvesting them is hard work. That’s why, since the 19th century, other sugars went into the mash: pineapple, refined white sugar, cane juice, rice — again, the stuff that was nearby and cheap. Very early on, ti became something distillers added to the mash rather than something they fermented as the mash.

From Island Distillers,
a 100-proof modern take
on Hawaiian moonshine
Authentic okolehaos, in other words, have long been made from less than 100% pure ti root. Some were pure, but not all. When I asked Flintstone why he didn’t make a 100% ti root distillate, he said that, though economics factored into it, the primary reason is that modern palates would find it too harsh and unpleasant, making it too hard of a sell.

And that brings us around to Jeff Berry’s recommendation to use bourbon or rye when there’s no okolehao. The first legal, commercial producer of ti-root okolehao was E. H. Edwards. In 1906, he imported a 200-gallon still to Kona specifically to make it. His business ultimately failed because the product was inconsistent, but he did make enough to put in barrels and ship to a bonded warehouse in Honolulu where it aged and took on color from the barrels.

You probably wouldn't mistake one for the other, but Edwards’ spirits started looking, smelling, and tasting — at least a bit — like whiskey. When his company was bought out, the new owners continued the practice; bonded, barrel-aged okolehao became common until Prohibition, when all beverage alcohol became illegal.

By the mid-twentieth century conditions had changed. Okolehao was legal again and popular both with tourists and US military stationed in Hawaii. By the 1960’s, however, okolehao had ceased being a blend of ti root and other sugars fermented and distilled on the islands, but was instead whiskey imported from the mainland and flavored with ti extract or ti roots simply ground and steeped in the whiskey to give it the "authentic" taste. This is why, when mixing drinks from recipes that call for okolehao but date from the 1960’s, Beachbum Berry says to use bourbon or rye.  Minus the funk of ti, that’s pretty much what midcentury okolehao was — at least the commercial stuff.

Hats off to Dave Flintstone for helping to resurrect local, high-proof wet goods.

Goes well with:
  • Okolehao, naturally. Pick up a stoneware bottle of the 100-proof cane-and-ti distillate when you're in Hawaii or track down distiller Dave Flintstone through his distillery's site, Island Distillers to have a supply shipped.
  • Swipes, the Pruno of Territorial Hawaii. Not all the beverages of old Hawaii were something you'd want to drink. By all accounts, swipes were a scourge that made many a sailor regret his stopover to the Hawaiian islands en route to the Philippines. 
  • 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 okolehao.

2 comments:

Tiare said...

Very interesting article Matt. I hope i one day can get a chance to try it, it´s a long time i wanted to taste it.

Matthew Rowley said...

Are you going to Tales this year? I'm undecided, but if *I* go and *you* go, perhaps I can bring a bottle. It seems the Bum's new place, Latitude 29, may not be open yet by July, but he might have some as well.