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What is Okolehao?

By Laura Evans
Updated May 16, 2024
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Okolehao, also called “oke,” is a Hawaiian alcoholic spirit that uses ti plant roots as its base. Over time, the way that oke has been made has evolved, resulting in numerous recipes for the liquor. Today, only one Hawaiian distillery legally produces Okolehao. Any other oke that is available is made illegally and may be thought of as Hawaiian "moonshine."

The ti plant, or Cordyline fruticosa, is called "ki" by Hawaiians. This plant was imported to the Islands with the ancient Polynesians who came to inhabit the area. Cordyline fruticosa was used for practical purposes. For example, Hawaiians used part of the ki plant to treat shortness of breath or asthma and used parts to induce vomiting. Hawaiians also used the leaves of the ti plant to wrap food during cooking, to make footwear, and to make rain capes.

The ancient Polynesians also brought sugar cane, or ko, to the Hawaiian islands. Sugar was another important ingredient of early Okolehao. Uala, or sweet potatoes, were also used to make okolehao. Sweet potatoes were also introduced to Hawaii by the Polynesians.

Some think that Hawaiians made a low-alcohol-content beer before the first European contact, when England's Captain James Cook (1728-1779) "discovered" Hawaii, or the "Sandwich Islands" in 1778. Captain Cook would lose his life on 14 February 1779, in a battle with Hawaiians. Others credit Captain Nathaniel Portloch, who was part of Captain Cook's first expedition to the Islands, for instructing Hawaiians on how to make this beer.

Hawaiians would not learn how to distill until 1790. Escaped Australian convict William Stephenson taught the islanders about distilling using iron pots that whalers used to cook whale blubber. The word "okolehao" means "iron bottom," perhaps in reference to how the pots resembled human anatomy.

Recipes for okolehao probably changed over time in part because of the importation of other plants and peoples to the Islands. For example, pineapples are not indigenous to the Hawaiian islands. Even so, pineapples, which were first introduced in 1813, were added to the "brew" because of the fruits' sugar content. In addition, rice became part of the mixture as Japanese and Chinese people came to live on the Islands.

Another reason other ingredients were added to okolehao may be because ti plant roots can weight some 200 pounds (about 91 kg). Ancient Hawaiians used to plant ti plants on hillsides. It was easier to pull the plants and roots out rather than dig the plants and roots from the ground.

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