Get Off Your “Iron Butt” and Try Some ʻŌkolehau
Today, Hawaii’s beer scene is overflowing with delectable West Coast-style IPAs and refreshing tropical fruit beers. But throughout the 1900s, beer making struggled to get off the ground in Hawaii until Prohibition finally obliterated the industry in 1920.
Thankfully, we Hawaiians had an alternative to keep our whistles wet: ʻŌkolehau, Hawaii’s only indigenous liquor. The drink was first introduced in 1790, when native Hawaiians told an English ship captain about a plant with miraculous healing properties and spiritual potency. To save his men from scurvy, the captain tracked down this mysterious herb, the ti plant, and fermented it into a kind of beer.
Within a decade, Hawaiians had refined the process and began distilling the roots of the ti plant into a clear, powerful liquor. They named it ʻŌkolehau, meaning “iron” (ʻŌkole-) + “butt” (hao), after the heavy bottomed pots that they used in the distilling process.
ʻŌkolehau skyrocketed in popularity until King Kamehameha I outlawed it in 1818, fearing that overconsumption among the natives would be the downfall of his kingdom. His grandson King Kamehameha III evidently had a taste for ʻŌkolehau, however, because he legalized it again in 1833.
When Hawaii took off as a tourist destination for Americans in the mid-1900s, ʻŌkolehau became a popular souvenir item. The pottery bottles it was served it were particularly sought after collectors’ items. ʻŌkolehau hit another roadblock in the 1980s, when the United States abruptly banned its sale, citing health concerns.
But we have good news! In recent years, there’s been an ʻŌkolehau revival. Craft distillers have updated the old recipes with the addition of flavors like sugar cane, rice, pineapple, taro, and oak aging, and craft cocktail makers have begun experimenting with it in tiki drinks and scorpion bowls. If you’re looking to get your hands on some ʻŌkolehau, check out Island Distillers, which distributes to restaurants, bars, and stores across the island of Kauai. Or track down a bottle from Honolulu’s Hanalei Spirits, which can be found at common retailers like Foodland, Safeway, ABC, and many restaurants throughout the islands.
Iron bottoms up!
Written by Chris, a local expert guide for Waikiki Crawling. A historian on the lam from the world of academia, Chris enjoys gardening, hiking, and playing at open mic nights after one too many beers. Want to learn more about Honolulu’s hidden history? Join us on an Aloha Pub Crawl!