‘Okolehao is sometimes referred to as Hawaiian moonshine and was big business on the Big Island during prohibition. It is made from the root of the Ki plant more commonly called the Ti plant, combined with rice, and pure cane sugar all plentiful in Hawaii.
What’s ‘okolehao? A hard-to-find spirit, made from C. Fruticosa, better known as the ti plant, a flowering lily that has played a significant role in Polynesian and Hawaiian society for generations.
According to the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper article, by Will Hover that appeared in 2003,
“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.”
It was said to have been introduced in the 1780s by a Capt. Nathaniel Portlock, on of Captain Cook’s crew, who taught the Hawaiians how to make a mildly intoxicating brew from the roots of ki — the plant more commonly known today as Ti. Around 1790, William Stevenson, an escaped convict from Australia taught them how to further distill a mash of fermented ti roots in the iron try-pots used to to boil whale blubber.
It’s fun to learn these lesser known stories of Hawaiian history and keep them alive.