Kī, the Ti plant, is a canoe crop, brought to the Islands by the early Polynesians. Kī was considered sacred to the Hawaiian god, Lono, and to the goddess of the hula, Laka. (ksbe)
It was also an emblem of high rank and divine power. The kahili, in its early form, was a kī stalk with its clustered foliage of glossy, green leaves at the top. The kahuna priests in their ancient religious ceremonial rituals used the leaves as protection. Ki planted around dwellings is thought to ward off evil. (ksbe)
Foreigners first fermented, and then distilled, the Kī root into an alcoholic beverage – due to the early means of making the drink, it took on the name ʻōkolehao (lit. iron bottom.)
“If people will drink, let us at least see, if possible, that they drink a fair article of poison. I hold that no man ever killed his wife when under the influence of good, generous liquor. It is the “tarantula juice,” the ʻōkolehao, that does most of the mischief.” (The Friend, October 1, 1879)
It is said to have started when Captain Nathaniel Portlock, part Captain Cook’s crew in 1779, baked roots in an imu (earthen oven) to convert its starches to sugars, added water and let it ferment with wild yeast into a mild beer.
Later, William Stevenson, an escaped convict from Australia, is credited to have taught the native Hawaiians how to distill the beer beverage into a higher alcoholic concoction. (Kepler)
Archibald Campbell, in Hawaiʻi in 1809-1810, traced the evolution of ʻōkolehao from root to toot:
“(the root) is put into a pit, amongst heated stones, and covered with plantain and taro leaves; through these a small hole is made, and water poured in; after which the whole is closed up again, and allowed to remain twenty-four hours. When the root has undergone this process, the juice tastes as sweet as molasses. It is then taken out, bruised, and put into a canoe to ferment; and in five or six days is ready for distillation.”
“Their stills are formed out of iron pots, which they procure from American ships, and which they enlarge to any size, by fixing several tier of calabashes above them, with their bottoms sawed off, and the joints well luted. From the uppermost, a wooden tube connects with a copper cone, round the inside of which is a ring with a pipe to carry off the spirit. The cone is fixed into a hole in the bottom of a tub filled with water, which serves as a condenser.”
“By this simple apparatus a spirit is produced, called lumi, or rum, and which is by no means harsh or unpalatable. Both whites and natives are unfortunately too much addicted to it. Almost every one of the chiefs has his own still.” (Greer)
“ʻŌkolehao still caresses island palates after nearly two hundred years of open or clandestine production.” (Greer)
ʻŌkolehao is a drink that has long been made illegally all over the islands. At frequent intervals Collector Chamberlain or deputies raid stills in mountain fastnesses, and usually the stuff they are found to be making is a kind of ʻōkolehao. (Hawaiian Star, September 12, 1906)
The secluded recesses of the mountain valleys furnish ti root in abundance, water and wood for distillation, and more important still, that immunity from arrest which assures the safety of the business. The manufacture is almost entirely in the hands of the Japanese, who find a ready market among the Hawaiians. (The Friend, October 1, 1903)
“Old-timers praise ʻōkolehao as smooth and seemingly mild – the kind of drink that sneaks up behind one with a sledgehammer. Daniel Tyerman and George Bennet, who in 1822 described in detail a big ʻōkolehao distillery, denounced the product as “a bad but very potent spirit, something like rum in flavor.’” (Greer)
“Since the perverted ingenuity of some early beachcomber first adjusted a twisted gun barrel to an iron pot, and distilled from the root of the ti this liquor to which the French Republic through the Paris Exposition of 1899 gave a blue ribbon. … ʻŌkolehao has been recognized as something in which Hawaiʻi might well have a proprietary pride, because of its surpassing excellence in its class.” (Hawaiian Star, September 20, 1906)
“So strong was this appeal to Hawaiian loyalty, that even the Provisional Government in 1893, and its successor the Republic of Hawaii, in 1899 winked at the violation of law necessary to make worthy and appropriate quantities of it for exhibition at the Expositions in Chicago and in Paris, and when it was triumphant in both places there was a thrill of Hawaiian pride even in the Missionary breast.” (Hawaiian Star, September 20, 1906)
The first ʻōkolehao ever made under legal authority and by scientific methods is being experimented with by Collector Chamberlain and others, for the purpose of ascertaining the value of the ti root as a producer of distilled liquors. It is thought by some that the plant is a valuable one and, that there is money to be made in the distillation of liquor from it, though under the present laws of the Territory nothing can be done with it. (Hawaiian Star, May 16, 1903)
“ʻŌkolehao which is as Hawaiian as Vodka is Russian, as pulque is Mexican, as Bourbon is Kentuckian, and which is said by connoisseurs to excel them all in those fine points which go to make up a spirituous liquor, and to be freer from deleterious qualities than any other, is soon to be manufactured in full compliance with the law, to be put on the market on its merits, to be relieved of the stigma of … contraband, and to have its good qualities proclaimed. The still has already arrived; the “process of manufacture will shortly begin.” (Hawaiian Star, September 20, 1906)
The stuff was the Hawaiian version of bootleg moonshine. Today, DLNR’s Na Ala Hele program includes the ʻŌkolehao Trail on Kauaʻi in its trail system. It follows a ridge top route established in the days of prohibition, when ʻŌkolehao was made from the Kī plants from the area, some of which still remain alongside the trail route.
Under the old laws of Hawaiʻi, mere possession of the stuff was an offense, and until recently the Territorial laws absolutely prohibited any distilling of intoxicating liquors on the islands at all. The passage of a law to license distilling was immediately followed by plans for starting stills of various kinds, and the ʻōkolehao still is the first. (Hawaiian Star, September 12, 1906)
The first distillery legally brought here under federal regulations has arrived and Internal Revenue Collector Chamberlain has received formal notice of its importation, In accordance with the requirements of the statutes, the still is now on the navy wharf, having been landed from the steamer Korea. (Hawaiian Star, September 12, 1906)
The still is to make ʻōkolehao. The beginning of its operations will be the first legal making of that drink. EH Edwards, of Kona, is the owner of the machinery, and intends to start a distillery as soon as possible, to make the genuine ʻōkolehao, from ti root, of which there is a great quantity ion Kona. (Hawaiian Star, September 12, 1906)
Later, Hilo Hattie, Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters sang about the cockeyed mayor of Kaunakakai, who “drank a gallon of oke to make life worthwhile.”
The image shows a bottle of reportedly 60-70 year old ʻŌkolehao. In addition, I have included other related images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook and Google+ pages.