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  • Writer's pictureBamboo Sam

Okolehao & Polynesian Paralysis

Updated: Feb 14, 2020

Making the drink when the booze is MIA...

Polynesian Paralysis in a Nautilus bowl
the Gardenia garnish didn't fit in my Nautilus Bowl...

We often talk of rum when we think of Tiki drinks which makes since if you know anything about most Tiki drink recipes. However, Tiki is rooted in mid-century American ideals of Polynesia while rum generally comes from the Caribbean; aren't those about as far away from one another as possible?! Is there not some Polynesian liquor we should be using instead?

Well, yes, sort of. There was a drink called Okolehao that was fermented from the root of the Ti plant in Hawaii by English sailors in the 1780's. However it was a beer and as such had a lower alcohol content. Then in 1790, an escaped Australian convict brought his distilling skills with him as he stowed away on a passenger ship that landed in Hawaii. It wasn't long before he took a couple of iron pots from a whaling ship and built himself a pot still. By 1790 he was distilling the Ti root beer into what the Hawaiian's called Okolehao - 'okole (butt) + hao (iron), a fairly accurate description of a pot still made of iron pots. It being one of the only locally sourced, high powered spirits it was heartily embraced by sailors and locals alike. Perhaps a bit too much so as it led to the banning of all strong drink by King Kamehameha in 1818 (although I blame the missionaries).

Okolehao or "Oke" is supposedly more akin to moonshine than rum in flavor, effect, and history. It was continually bootlegged through the 1818 prohibition and again during the US government's alcohol prohibition of the 1920's. The mash was not only Ti root but also used molasses, cane juice, pineapples, and whatever else the islands had to offer as the years went by. After WWII, Oke fell out of favor in Hawaii with the abundance of rum and vodka and it was never easy to obtain on the mainland which is why it was not used in any traditional Tiki drinks. However, it was used in Scorpion Bowls and Kava Bowls served in Hawaii. Hawaiian Tiki bartenders like the legendary Harry Lee began incorporating Oke and a few drinks like the Hot Buttered Okelehao. However, for my money, the best Tiki drink using Oke is the Polynesian Paralysis. Unfortunately, I can't find any Oke. It is being made again by Island Distillers out of Hawaii. While all of the flavor descriptions I've been able to find are all over the map, Beachbum Berry insists that the closest alternative is bourbon. Now I don't know about you, but as much as I like bourbon it doesn't scream Tiki to me! One of the main ingredients in a Polynesian Paralysis is orange juice. OJ and bourbon. If that doesn't make you wince something's wrong with you. But, this is the magic of Tiki bartending. With the right compatriots, even the rowdiest of travelers can have a fine time.

Frankly, I don't care if Oke tastes anything like bourbon at this point. I'll eventually get my hands on a bottle and I'll be sure to report back when I do. But until then, the Polynesian Paralysis stands on its own with bourbon. Thus I give you my wife's favorite of all of the Tiki drinks I make (except when she wants a Macadamia Nut Chi Chi) the Polynesian Paralysis. Okole maluna!

Polynesian Paralysis

  • 3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice

  • 3 ounces orange juice

  • 3 ounces unsweetened pineapple juice

  • 1 ounce orgeat syrup

  • 1/2 ounce sugar syrup

  • 3 ounces Okolehao (or sub bourbon)

Flash blend up to 10 seconds with 12 ounces of crushed ice. Gated pour into a Tiki Bowl or large Tiki Mug. Garnish with a gardenia.

A note on the bourbon - I prefer Maker's Mark in this cocktail.

A note from the Mrs. - One evening I ran out of lemons and made this with lime juice. She now prefers it that way.

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