In High Spirits

Okolehao is making a comeback.

In the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, Johnny Depp’s character, Capt. Jack Sparrow, asks “Why is the rum gone?” But when he films Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides in Hawaii this summer, that query might sound more like, “Ho, brah, okolehao pau already?”  

Okolehao (literally, “iron bottom”) or “oke,” was a favorite libation of King David Kalakaua, and is the original Hawaiian moonshine. According to Ming Koshi, owner of The Liquor Collection, the original spirit hasn’t been made since the 1970s. Fortunately, Haleakala Distillers, in Upcountry Maui, has revived this cultural concoction and revamped it as an 80-proof liqueur, launched in December of 2009.

Distiller Jim Sargent, who founded the company in 2003 and also crafts rum, began working on okolehao in 2004. He first heard of it in a John Wayne movie, Operation Pacific. Then, on a trip to Honolulu, he spoke to Koshi, and found that oke had become a museum piece, with vintage bottles fetching as much as $250. But what was inside wasn’t okolehao, it was bourbon. “The people who sold okolehao in the ’70s and ’80s were not making it from ti [or ki] root,” Sargent says. “They were importing inexpensive bourbon from Kentucky and putting it in okolehao bottles.”

Tsk, Tsk.  

Sargent has returned to using ti roots, although he’s reworked the original version, which had up to 100-percent alcohol content,  into a mellower, more palatable 40-percent alcohol liqueur. To make the Maui Okolehao, Haleakala Distillers takes the starch of East Maui-grown ti root, converts it into sugar, ferments it with evaporated cane juice and then distills it. What results tastes like a cross between rum and tequila, with hints of honey and a coconut finish, which, Sargent says, “is a distinctly Hawaiian flavor [that] doesn’t taste like any other spirit.”

A bottle of Maui Okolehao costs about $30; you can find it on Oahu at The Liquor Collection at Ward Warehouse, Foodland Aina Haina and Tamura’s Fine Wine & Liquors. For a complete list of distributors, see

Want to try okolehao at home?

Mix up one of these drink recipes, courtesy of Haleakala Distillers.


A vintage bottle of okolehau from the private collection of the Liquior Collection.

Photo: David Croxford


Fill a tall glass 2/3 of the way with crushed ice. Add
1 ounce light rum
1 ounce okolehao
2 ounces lemon or sour mix
3 ounces fresh lime juice
Fill the rest of the glass with Champagne.


2 ounces okolehao
3 ounces coconut milk
1/2 ounce orgeat  
Combine in a shaker. Fill double rocks glass with crushed ice, pour drink over
it to serve.


3 ounces POG juice
1 ounce okolehao
2 ounces Sprite
Splash of fresh lime juice
Serve over ice