Maui distillery serves up a sip of history
By HARRY EAGAR, Staff Writer
POSTED: December 27, 2009
MAKAWAO – Hilo Hattie sang about the cockeyed mayor of Kaunakakai, who "drank a gallon of oke to make life worthwhile."
But it couldn’t have happened recently, since genuine okolehao has not been distilled (legally, anyway) for at least 40 years and probably longer.
Haleakala Distillers, Maui’s only rum-maker, is introducing Maui Okolehao Liqueur, made from ti root grown in East Maui, and enhanced with evaporated cane juice from Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.
Only 200 cases were made, and master distiller Jim Sargent said it may take nine months before another batch comes through.
His wife and managing director, Leslie Sargent, said it has been so long since anybody made "oke" that there was no information to be found about how to do it.
"The whole process had to be derived from scratch," said Jim Sargent, a.k.a. Braddah Kimo. "We have taken quite some time to distill an authentic, 100 percent Maui-made all natural spirit."
Because of federal liquor regulations, the tipple is a liqueur, rather than the skullbuster that was invented in the 19th century.
Okolehao has a colorful, although recently more or less mythical history.
The ti plant stores sugar in its roots, which can be used to ferment alcohol, and the roots keep growing. Enormous roots weighing several hundred pounds can be found under old plants.
Sargent said he buys his "by the truckload" from a Hawaiian family farming in East Maui. He declined to identify them, saying they prefer to avoid publicity.
(Digging a 200-pound root out of the ground can take all day. A Keanae farmer explained years ago that Hawaiians, when they want the root, plant ti on a steep hillside, so it can be pulled off rather than dug up.)
Oke got its name from the trypots made available for cooking ti mash when whaling declined. The big iron kettles were paired on the ships, with one side flat, so they could fit snugly on the fire grate.
Two pots paired looked like a large rear end, hence the name "iron bottom."
Because there are sources of sugar and starch easier to get in Hawaii than digging up big roots, okolehao was usually a sort of moonshine, resorted to in order to evade the authorities. In recent generations, most stuff proffered as "oke" has really been made from rice or pineapple juice. There was a brief revival of real oke during World War II, when martial law made other spirits hard to get.
Plenty of mixed drink recipes call for okolehao, said Kimo Sargent. But the real stuff has been unavailable. Within the last few decades, some commercial hooch has been labeled okolehao, but it was just bourbon.
Sargent said federal regulations made it necessary to produce a liqueur rather than a straight distilled spirit. A liqueur is a sweetened alcohol (often based on brandy) flavored with spices, nuts, etc. Sargent said he uses the maximum of ti allowed under the regulations, with 2 percent sugar.
He uses HC&S evaporated cane juice, which is the very low-color raw sugar produced at Puunene, without further refining. Sargent said it adds subtle tones to the overall taste.
The product is 40 percent alcohol. Haleakala Distillers cannot set a retail price, but expects it probably will sell for under $30 a bottle.
Haleakala Distillers opened at the former Haleakala Dairy in Makawao in 2005, making rums from Maui molasses.
Its various rums have won a silver medal at the Cane Spirits Festival and a gold from the American Distillers Institute.
Most sales are on Maui, through retailers, bars and restaurants, with "a good percentage" on the Big Island.
There are two ways to get a taste of Maui Okolehao, on-premise, where drinkers can try a single serving; and retail.
The retailers have a limited stock, but Leslie Sargent said the distillery can "resupply within a day or two" – until it’s gone.
The current Maui on-premise sellers are Haliimaile General Store and Maui Brewing in Kahana.
Retailers initially ordering oke are Cafe Ciao at the Fairmont Kea Lani, Aloha Discount Liquor in Kihei, Kuau Mart, Hanzawa’s Variety Store in Haiku, the Wine Corner in Paia, Wine Corner West in Lahaina, Sugar Beach General Store in Kihei, Aina Gourmet Market in Kaanapali, Hawaii Liquor Superstore in Kahului, Honolua Store and Lahaina Farms.
An updated list of locations offering okolehao is available at www.haleakaladistillers.com