Hawaii has a long love affair with booze. It started with the Polynesian explorers who came to the islands brought with them plants from home. Along with kalo and coconuts their canoes carried an unassuming shrub with heart-shaped leaves: awa.
Hawaiians take the awa root and pulverized it and mix it with water. It had a relaxing and mellowing effect. Apparently it also caused red, watery eyes. Early accounts from foreigners report that awa drinkers had drooping, red eyes all day long.
By the time Captain Cook came around in 1778, Hawaiians had a culture around the plant. Awa was part of cultural, political, and religious practices. These days it’s still imbibed at baby luaus, weddings, and other celebrations.
Perhaps the eighteenth-century sailors empathized. They had a nearly sacrosanct drink of their own: grog. The stuff is well-documented in ship logs, poems, and journals.
Grog started out as a cost-cutting measure when a captain in the West Indies started to water down the daily rum ration for sailors. (Yes, sailors in the Royal Navy by right had a daily ration of booze, a practice that didn’t cease until the 1970s when it was observed that operating military equipment under the influence could be dangerous.).
As the British Navy’s missions became longer and longer, the problem of keeping fresh provisions arose and prolonged exposure to the elements at sea lead sailors to suffer from vitamin deficiency. Captains killed two birds with one stone by adding citrus into the watered down rum.
The effect was a strange spirit sitting in storage for months on end at room temperature. In 1786, the first observed Christmas in Hawaii, a sea captain ordered coconut water to be mixed in with the grog ration and the first local cocktail was born.
It was around that same time when an escaped convict from the penal colony of Australia ran to Oahu. There, he took the roots from a ti plant, fermented it in an old canoe, and distilled it in round cast iron pots. The result was okolehao.
Hawaiians were quick to pick up on distillation and the newly-discovered spirit. Distillers experimented with all kinds of additives like sugar cane and later pineapple. By the 1820s, liquor (along with prostitution and gambling) was one of the much-desired activities of sailors from whale ships in Honolulu and Lahaina.
For much of the 19th century, pubs, taverns, and grog shops opened and sold liquor and beer. Downtown Honolulu and Lahaina became ground zero for boozing. Traders and merchants sold it. Sailors and locals drank it. At the same time, liquor was blamed for overcrowded jails, crime, poverty, and a great deal of mischief.
As expected, missionaries weren’t pleased. They influenced Queen Kaahumanu to enact strict moral codes. It was the first temperance movement. King Kamehameha himself imposed a kapu on intoxicating liquors in 1818 and again in 1823. The later kings and queens of Hawaii imposed similar restrictions.
The anti-saloon and temperance movements continued after the kingdom gave way to the territory. In 1910, they pushed hard to ban the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages across the islands. The attempt attracted the attention of the Prohibition Party, a national political party opposed to the sale and consumption of alcohol. The measure failed, but the teetotalers were resolved to fight on.
In 1918, the prohibitionists celebrated (without champagne) when Woodrow Wilson banned the sale and consumption of alcohol in Hawaii. The ban was not lifted until 1933.
But the long prohibition did not stop the booze from flowing. In remote gulches, attics, basements, and other discreet places folks were distilling okolehao and other spirits. Law enforcement cracked down on illegal stills and brews.
Even as late as the 1970s you could still find some old-fashioned hooch in the oddest of places. Inmates at the old Oahu Prison would hang shirts in the sun to ferment a strange brew called swipe, which consisted of pineapple, sugar, and yeast.
These days you don’t have to look for a remote gulch in East Maui or jail to find an island-made drink. Haleakala Distilleries is located right across the street from Hailiimaile General Store and makes vodkas, whiskey, and rum. Ocean Vodka is located among the cactus in lower Kula and has tours of their distilling process and offers a high-end vodka.
Maui Brewing Company has been celebrating ten years of brewing beer with events in Kihei, Paia, and Lahaina. And long before this blossoming of booze there was the vineyard in Ulupalakua, which has been bottling wines since the 1980s.
So there you have it. Drinking is inextricably linked to the inhabitants of Hawaii. This just might be the first time we’ve had the most variety. Awa? Homemade swipe? A six-pack of Maui brews? Take your pick.