Time for Oke to Make Comeback?
Opinion by Chris Carey
Anyone who is interested in our island and its history knows of the famous 1935 Hilo Hattie song “The Cockeyed Mayor of Kaunakakai.” (For those who don’t, you can find the story at squareone.org/Hapa/c6.html.)
Whether you disdain the song or not, one verse goes “…He drank a gallon of oke to make life worthwhile,” and therein lies an idea. “Oke” or Okolehao is an illicit, indigenous island liquor made from Ti root that so many enjoyed on the sly, back in the day. Depending on its source, it could be smooth as silk or as vicious as a scorpion’s sting.
Several years ago, a Maui-based company called Sandwich Islands Distillery attempted to market a full blown (80+ proof) commercial product labeled “Nine Islands Okolehao.” For various reasons, the effort failed and the idea never came to fruition, but a milder version in the form of a liqueur was produced in limited supply by Maui Distillers (Maui Okolehao Liqueur, 70 Proof). The latter is available today, both on the islands and on the mainland, but it is not quite the fully authentic Oke that Hilo Hattie lampooned in her song.
Like so many other unique Hawaiian plants, the Ti has had many uses for the Hawaiian people, both practical and sacred. Its huge roots, sometimes over 200 pounds, provided the essential ingredient, along with rice and sugar, in the production of the unique island liquor known as Okolehao.
Perhaps it is time to consider reintroducing commercial quality Okolehao as a potential source of economic benefit to Molokai. Although cultivation of Ti on a scale large enough to support such a local industry might pose problems, it is a sure bet that a Molokai-produced commercial Okolehao would very quickly become a big hit with everyone, tourists and locals alike. There is also substantial potential in the idea if a commercial partner (whose sympathies are suitably attuned to islands aesthetics) could be found to subsidize (read: bankroll) the project.
Moral purists may object to the idea of producing an alcoholic drink that, although it may profit the island’s economy, might further encourage drunkenness. But you need to ask what’s worse: Illegal ice and substance abuse, or a legal commercial product that almost the entire Western world legally embraces enthusiastically?