Mai tais, Heinekens and pineapple wine may be the lay of the land in the 50th state today, but Hawaii hasn’t always been so open-minded about its alcohol consumption. From a few oddly lingering regulations to historical facts about how Hawaii’s drinking scene came to be, this month we are taking a look at some lesser-known – and hopefully entertaining – facts about alcohol in the Aloha State.
With so many talented craft winemakers, master brewers and liquor distillers on The Valley Isle, we encourage everyone visiting the island (or at least the ones over 21 years old) to explore Maui’s craft community to learn more about the local libations created right here in paradise.
Interesting Facts About Alcohol in Hawaii
Okolehao was the Original Hawaiian Spirit
Crafted from the baked and fermented roots of ti plants, okolehao is said to have initially been introduced by an English ship captain named Nathaniel Portlock, a member of Captain Cook’s crew who landed in the Hawaiian Islands in 1780, as a way to prevent scurvy. While it was consumed as a beer-like beverage at the time, it was eventually distilled into a liquor in 1792, complements of the skills of an escaped Australian convict. Translating to ‘iron bottom’ due to the use of two iron pots required for the distillation process, native Hawaiians coined the spirit okolehao.
After a brief period of success throughout Hawaii, King Kamehameha I banned okolehao for all native Hawaiians – and any other ‘strong drink’ – in 1818 until the prohibition was lifted in 1833 by King Kamehameha III, primarily as a way to push back against the overreaching authority of Western missionaries at the time.
Today, you can taste this historic 100 proof island spirit at Oahu’s Island Distillers, as well as in classic cocktails like the Chief’s Calabash and Lei Day.
Maui County has its own ‘Footloose Law’
If you’ve ever sipped on an adult beverage whilst swaying to the sound of music, well… you’re just like the rest of us. On Maui, however, it’s technically against the law to dance and drink alcohol at the same time. If thirsty patrons want to bust a move on Maui, they must do so in a specified, permitted dancing area of at least 100 square feet, and without their alcoholic drink of choice in hand. This technically means you could get kicked out – or at least politely asked to stop – if you’re seen dancing while sitting on your bar stool or waiting in line at the bar.
Enforced by the Maui County Liquor Commission, who can charge restaurants and bars – not the patrons themselves – hefty fines for violations of this Footloose-like law, so far the only true definition of dancing given by the Commission is ‘they know it when they see it.’
Tiki Bars Started with a Texan Named Ernest
Originally born in Texas in 1907, a man named Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt skipped college in favor of traveling the South Pacific and Caribbean islands, eventually involving himself in the illegal bootlegging industry during the height of Prohibition era by making and selling his own moonshine. In 1933, 24 year old Ernest – who changed his name to ‘Donn’ – celebrated the official end of the Prohibition era by setting up shop in southern California, eventually earning enough money to open his own South Pacific inspired bar called ‘Don the Beachcomber’ alongside his girlfriend, Sunny.
Notable for its recognition as the first true mainland Polynesian tiki bar, Donn was also a talented bartender, creating approximately 84 unique cocktails such as the Navy Grog – a favorite of Frank Sinatra – as well as the Zombie, Tahitian Rum Punch and most famously, the Mai Tai.
While serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Sunny was able to expand the operation to 16 locations across the country. After he returned, however, the two divorced and Sunny took over full control of all ‘Don the Beachcomber’ bars and name, preventing him from opening another location under his own name anywhere else in the country. Because Hawaii was not yet recognized as a part of the United States, however, Donn opted to move to the warm tropical shores of Oahu, opening yet another ‘Don the Beachcomber’ bar in the heart of Waikiki Beach, spawning a rise in the tiki bar craze in Hawaii in the 1950s.
Legend has it he installed a garden hose to spray the metal rooftop of his Waikiki ‘Don the Beachcomber’ bar, tricking his patrons into staying longer because they assumed it was raining outside.
Mahalo for reading our interesting tidbits about alcohol in Hawaii, and we hope you learned a thing or two to share at your next craft cocktail party. In the meantime, we hope to see you on one of our four unique Maui Craft Tours – Upcountry Tasting Tour, Taste of Maui, Pineapple Express and the Ultimate Craft Adventure – to learn, taste and savor the most innovative flavors of Maui.