Okolehao fans have been waiting for the return of Hawaii’s native whiskey, distilled from the root of the ti plant, for decades now. The Bum counts himself high among their number, along with his pal Sven Kirsten, author of Tiki Modern and fellow collector of vintage oke decanters (that’s Sven’s shelf pictured above). We started canvassing swap meets and garage sales for them in the early 1990s, when the Kennedy-era decanters could still often be found — dusty souvenirs of forgotten Hawaiian holidays, many of them still sealed.
Not wanting to break the cool-looking tax stamps, and mindful of old newspaper reports that oke was a rotgut spirit anyway, we left these full bottles unmolested. Until the day we uncovered some lost tropical drink recipes calling for oke, and took the plunge. What we tasted was far from rotgut. In fact, those decanters had been storing liquid gold, a smooth, vibrant, full-bodied pour that we ended up sipping straight. We polished off the last of it around 10 years ago, and have been jonesing ever since.
Now Haleakala Distillers, a Maui outfit run by Jim “Bradda Kimo” Sargent, has finally answered the call. To get around federal liquor regulations, Kimo had to craft his oke as a liqueur rather than a straight distilled spirit, but at 80 proof it still packs a Hawaiian punch, with none of the usual heavy sweetness of a liqueur.
While it bears little relation to the vintage spirit we knew and loved, Maui Okolehau Liqueur is no less delicious. It’s a hand-made, artisanal potion with a fascinating spectrum of flavors, both herbaceous and fruity, ranging from guava and marshmallow to strawberry and, of course, ti leaf. For more info: