‘Okolehao. The name brings to mind images of a torch-lit beach party where amorous sailors and laughing Hawaiian beauties grow tipsy drinking the fiery distillation of the ti plant’s root.
Yet few folks alive today have actually tasted the legendary liquor.
The original ‘okolehao was made by William Stevenson, an escapee from Australia’s penal colony who arrived on O‘ahu in the 1790s. Hawaiians of the day sometimes baked the high-fructose ti root to make a molasses-sweet treat. Stevenson fermented the cooked roots in an old canoe, then distilled the mix in round iron try-pots, whose resemblance to the human rear end is supposed to be the origin of the name ‘okolehao: “iron bottom.” Later distillers added other ingredients, like rice and pineapple juice.
The Merrie Monarch, King David Kalakaua, is said to have had his own distiller, and in 1889, ‘okolehao won a French award as “the drink of immortals.” But Prohibition stopped production, and even after its repeal, commercial distillers in the mid-20th century struggled and, for various reasons, eventually failed.
Still, the legend lives. Sandwich Islands Distilling Corporation will have its new ‘okolehao on store shelves, starting in the fall of 2006. Its recipe includes fermented Ke‘anae-grown ti root with a bit of rice, pineapple, and sugarcane added, the Pa‘ia distiller’s best guess at the authentic formulation of the drink that made Kalakaua merry.