That’s the Spirit: Uncovering the History of a Mysterious Bottle

After finding an old unopened liquor bottle during spring cleaning, I investigated its origins.


Ivan Ivanovitch

Photo: Brandon Miyagi


I finally started some late spring cleaning around my apartment a few weeks ago. It’s amazing (or horrifying) how much stuff I accumulate. Though some trinkets have memories attached to them—matchbooks from restaurants long gone, novelty prizes won at Punahou Carnivals—a lot of it is really just junk. I figured the easiest thing to do was fill garbage bags with everything that wasn’t important to me. But then I saw an old unopened bottle filled with liquid. It looked to be many decades old and, although the word “Primo” was engraved on its side, it also bore the label “Ivan Ivanovitch brand vodka.”


I had never heard of Ivan Ivanovitch. Neither had longtime local private detective Steve Goodenow of He appraises artifacts, and when I asked him about my bottle, he told me that Primo beer had been brewed in Hawai‘i beginning in the early 1900s (at the former Royal Brewery building that still stands at 547 Queen St.), which means this bottle could be more than a century old.


I also asked Hawai‘i Adjutant General Army Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, whom I had previously interviewed for a story about his own vintage glass bottle collection, if he knew anything about good ol’ Ivan. He didn’t, but he said that old distillers sometimes reused bottles. He introduced me to a Facebook group called “Old Hawai‘i Bottles & Collectibles,” filled with dozens of local aficionados, but none of them knew what to make of my find, either. The fact that there was still liquid inside, presumably vodka even though it was clearly a beer bottle, seemed to baffle everyone.


SEE ALSO: Sample All of Ko‘olau Distillery’s Local Liquor Offerings on a Tour in Kailua


It took me days to remember that I got the bottle from the former Liquor Collection at Ward Warehouse. I reached out to Art Koshi, whose family had owned the spirit shop for more than three decades. When it closed in 2016, I purchased an inflatable Guinness toucan decoration that hung in the store and Art’s father gave me the vodka as a bonus. “We were selling it as a collectible,” Art tells me. “My dad remembers this one because he had some trouble entering it into inventory. It was so obscure to him that he couldn’t trace it.”


I knew the feeling. Luckily, a shot in the dark message to longtime Bishop Museum historian DeSoto Brown yielded answers.


During World War II, all types of stuff became difficult to get in Hawai‘i because of national war demands on manufacturing as well as supply chain and transportation (ahem) bottlenecks. Liquor was in high demand, Brown says, and so were the bottles it came in. The U.S. government granted a waiver for local liquor producers to reuse any bottles they could find, and some even offered small cash payments to people who turned them in. That’s likely how I ended up with this “Primo” vodka.


Brown and another local historian, Iāsona Kaper, confirmed that “Ivan Ivanovitch” was a made-up name for any generic Russian man, like John Smith or John Doe for an American. Hawaiian Distilleries Ltd., which created this vodka, just slapped Ivan Ivanovitch on for branding.


“Hawai‘i WWII liquor still in an original bottle and with an authentic paper label is very rare,” Brown writes in an email. “Practically none of the actual items still exist … although the demand for it would be low since nobody would know what it is since its history is forgotten, as you discovered.”


Eh, that’s OK. I wasn’t trying to make a buck. I just didn’t want to throw away anything that actually meant something to me, which this bottle now does. Ivan is back on my shelf—along with a new story.