Rum’s Hawaiian Cousin

Originally posted 11 June 2012

The natives of Hawaii made alcohol from the leaves and roots of the ti plant – not the same plant that was used to make the drink famed in India and China, but one indigenous to the islands. The knowledge of distilling arrived with the Europeans, along with the containers to boil large amounts of liquid – the pots used by whalers to render whale blubber into oil.


As you can see, these pots have one flat side, a design that allowed them both to fit easily into a ship’s hold and to sit close to each other over a fire. The whalers were only in the islands for a few months a year, and the rest of the time the Hawaiians used them to make rum from the sugar that had been introduced by Europeans. To the Hawaiians, the two pots close together looked like someone’s backside, and the pots were given the name “okolehao,” which is usually translated as “Iron Buttocks.” A liquor made from a mix of distilled ti leaves with sugar became known by the same name, and is still made by a small commercial distillery on the island of Maui. It is recognizably a rum with flowery overtones, and well worth trying if you are in the Islands. It is no longer made in the old style, with the whalepots attached to crude copper tubes to create alembic stills, but it’s still a taste of another time and place.