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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 1, 2003

Will new 'okolehao be your cup of ti?

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

For much of the 20th century, Hawai'i's legendary ti root moonshine was produced illegally in the deep valleys and inaccessible forests where the authorities would have a tough time finding a well-hidden still.

Hawaiian Distillers no longer produces its liqueur labeled "Okolehao" but the new owner of the label may use it in producing the real 'okolehao, a liquor with a much stronger wallop.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

A century before that, the smooth bootleg liquor known as 'okolehao was prized by King Kalakaua, and known as far away as Paris. But for most folks, the mysterious booze with the strange-sounding name has been little more than a romantic footnote to Hawai'i's social history.

That could soon change.

By the end of the year, a distiller plans to launch full commercial production of 'okolehao on Maui.

Steve Thompson, former president of Brown-Forman Distillery Company, the company that owns Jack Daniels, got his first taste of 'okolehao in 1966 as a Libby Foods employee on Moloka'i. Before bidding farewell to the island a year later, Thompson says he "inherited" the formula from a French-Hawaiian family.

Through three decades and a career in the distilling business, Thompson never forgot about 'okolehao or its recipe.

Now, Thompson and a major California spirits bottler, the LeVecke Corp., have joined forces to start a new company in Hawai'i — Sandwich Islands Distilling Inc.

Thompson and LeVecke say their 'okolehao will be the real McCoy, a total Hawai'i product, using a formula that calls for a mash of roughly 25 percent ti root, 20 percent rice and 55 percent cane sugar, all grown in Hawai'i.

"This will be as important to Hawai'i as tequila is to Mexico," Thompson, 59, said from Louisville, Ky. "It will change the economy. We want 'okolehao to be as big as tequila, and there's no reason it can't be."

Those who are old enough to remember tasting the genuine 'okolehao give varying descriptions.

"It didn't taste like anything you've ever tasted before," said Philip Howell, 82, a former vice squad officer with the Honolulu Police Department who raided dozens of illegal O'ahu still operations in the early 1940s. "It was smooth and very well made."

"I have tasted it," said University of Hawai'i botany professor Isabella Aiona Abbott, 80. "I won't tell you where I got it. But it's like drinking a strong brandy."

Carol Anamizu runs a 40-acre Kahuku farm along with her husband, Douglas, offering ti leaves for sale. When Sandwich Islands Distilling Inc. starts making 'okolehao, the Anamizus may supply the ti roots.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

Ti root drinks in Hawai'i go back at least 200 years, and newspaper and other accounts charted their history over the decades.

In the 1780s, Capt. Nathaniel Portlock showed Hawaiians how to make a mildly intoxicating brew from the roots of ki — the plant more commonly known today as ti, as in ti leaf. Around 1790, an escaped convict from Australia named William Stevenson taught them how to distill a mash of fermented ti roots in the iron try-pots used by whalers to boil blubber.

The rounded pots and the resulting beverage both took the same name: 'okolehao — or "iron bottom." The name was derived from the Hawaiian propensity to make "anatomical comparisons," wrote the authors of the Hawaiian Dictionary, in a letter to the editor of The Honolulu Advertiser in April 1944.

From the start, Hawaiians — royal and commoner — took to the new, potent concoction, which was said to be a "gift from heaven." King Kalakaua, who was known to imbibe, once granted a full royal pardon to a man imprisoned for making illegal 'okolehao, said a 1934 liquor commission report.

According to a story published in 1938 about Eben Low, the main conspirator in a successful prank to smuggle an illegal bottle of 'okolehao into the World Exposition of 1889 in Paris, the French judges loved the stuff so much, they exclaimed words to the effect of "vive l''okolehao!" and officially conferred "the bronze medal to the government of Hawai'i."

In 1915, the illustrious Hawaiian moonshine took first prize for excellence at a spirits competition in San Francisco.

Waipi'o Valley on the Big Island was Hawai'i's 'okolehao focal point during the Prohibition Era from 1920 to 1933. One of the most colorful Prohibition Waipi'o moonshiners was Luther Makeau, a Parker Ranch cowboy who, according to his daughter, Virginia "Auntie Lehau" Kapaku of Nanakuli, eventually went to prison for his outlaw activities.

"It was 100 percent alcohol, I know that," Kapaku said. "They sold it by the gallon jug. What they'd do is chop up the ti roots and steam them in an imu."

The fermented mash was then put in a homemade still, she said. Because the Prohibition was in full swing, the resulting beverage could sell for as high as $100 a gallon.

Steve Thompson, who joined forces with a California spirits bottler to start Sandwich Islands Distilling Inc., says he first tasted 'okolehao in 1966 on Moloka'i and still has an old recipe he'd acquired.

Photo courtesy Steve Thompson

Some moonshiners, such as the notorious "Joe Gang" of Wai'anae Coast lore, were said to have never been caught. A handful, such as E.H. Edwards of the Big Island and Howard Redfearn of O'ahu, obtained a proper license, made more or less genuine 'okolehao in the mid-20th century, paid the appropriate taxes — and went out of business.

Still others, vexed by the constant need to dig up enormous ti roots — some of which can weigh up to 300 pounds — substituted a mash of rice and sugar to produce an 'okolehao-like liquor known as "oke."

'Okolehao even reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1984 when the court rejected Hawai'i's claim that the liquor was not competitive with out-of-state spirits and therefore should be exempt from federal excise taxes.

The LeVecke Corp. was familiar with 'okolehao even before it teamed up with Thompson last year. In 1987 the company took over Hawaiian Distillers, a Honolulu company that had since the 1970s manufactured a product called "Okolehao" that was loosely based on the original old Hawaiian moonshine.

After LeVecke bought out Hawaiian Distillers the company continued making a 70-proof "Okolehao" liqueur, which was not a true 'okolehao.

"I'm not sure how the formula that we inherited from Hawaiian Distillers was originated," said Tim LeVecke, CEO of the company, which hasn't manufactured the Hawaiian Distillers Okolehao for several years (although a few bottles can still be found on some store shelves).

"We're looking for authenticity. And we're very excited about the potential market for this product."

The new product will be sold in 80-proof and 140-proof versions, to be priced in the $18-to-$28 range. Thompson said Sandwich Islands will even offer a brand of 100 percent ti root 'okolehao for purists "who want to grow hair on the bottom of their feet."

Isabella Abbott wonders how Sandwich Islands can maintain an adequate supply of ti roots, considering that it takes at least two years for ti plants to grow. But Thompson said he's confident he'll be able to meet the need.

He said he has been in contact with ti plant growers on Maui and plans to fly to O'ahu later this month to talk to Douglas and Carol Anamizu, who farm some 40 acres of ti plants on the North Shore.

"I know that at one time there was a market for 'okolehao, and I know that no one today is making it," said Douglas Anamizu, who once considered making commercial 'okolehao himself. "We're sitting on the plants, and Thompson seems to have the technical know-how. So, maybe we can come to terms."

Thompson said he has all the necessary tanks, distilling and bottling equipment ready to ship to Maui.

"All we're waiting for right now is the permit to build within the existing property of the old Pa'ia Sugar Mill," Thompson said. "That will be a temporary facility while we're building our new, permanent facility north of the airport."

Thompson and LeVecke promise that as soon as the stills are in place, old-fashioned 'okolehao will once again flow in the land of its origin.


Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8038.

Correction: Steve Thompson is a former president of Brown-Forman Distillery Company. A previous version of this story named the wrong company.