Kava, the second most widespread intoxicating beverage after alcohol, is a cold herbal drink enjoyed throughout much of the Pacific Islands and Hawaii. It might just be a far safer (and much healthier) alternative to hitting the vodka or other narcotics or medications.

So what exactly is kava, then? It’s a type of pepper plant, informally called the ‘intoxicating pepper’, which grows over large swathes of the Pacific, and the drink is made from its ground-up roots. Although it’s been drunk for millennia, it wasn’t until the arrival of Captain James Cook’s expedition in the late 1700’s that the Western world first became acquainted with this unassuming shrub. Although its traditional home is thought to be the Republic of Vanuatu, a tiny Micronesian island-state, both Hawaii and Fiji have very strong links with the ‘awa’ (typically pronounced “AH-vuh”).

Kava is made by adding water or milk to the powdered root of the plant, vigorously squeezing the powder through a filter and then straining the muddy-looking mixture into a bucket through palm fibres. In a modern kitchen, electric blenders and cheesecloth fill in for the more traditional tools; glasses replacing the coconut cups.

So what is it about kava that’s so great anyway? The experience is extremely relaxing; worries fade away, and conversations catch on effortlessly. Although definitely a bit less intense than alcohol, kava has definite potential to intoxicate if enough is drunk! Like alcohol, consequences of over-indulging include delights such as falling over, throwing up, and of course, waking up with a splitting hangover, though unlike alcohol mental functions are unimpaired and the negative effects only come on after drinking fairly staggering amounts of the stuff (which, given kava’s horrendous mud-like taste is an impressive feat in itself).

The most noticeable effect of kava is definitely the relaxation. Sometimes even speaking seems a bit too much of an effort, although kava also loosens tongues at least as well as, if not better than, drink. A kava circle with friends is definitely one of the best ways to while a night away in good conversation; good background music and a hookah also go along well. You can mix kava with alcohol, the alcohol makes the effects of kava a bit stronger and the combination can work very well. Although kava is botanically classed as an ‘intoxicant’ and sometimes as a ‘narcotic’, its effects are very dissimilar to drink. Despite the sociability and  relaxation, which closely resemble drink, there’s no mental stupor, tendency to do idiotic things or aggressiveness.  While to many hardcore drinkers this might all sound a bit dry, it’s a really great experience and I’d almost rate it over drink on some nights. The best thing of all though is that your ability to drive is almost unaffected (though don’t drive if you’ve had a lot of kava).

Kava’s legality, unfortunately, is a bit complicated, at least in Ireland. There was a much hyped kava liver scare in 2001 and since then many health authorities have taken the drastically unnecessary  step of curtailing the supply of kava in their national markets. The culprits in Ireland for this is the Irish Medicines Board, a statutory body that stubbornly refuses to accept the unequivocal conclusion from the medical experts that kava, when only the root is used, is in fact very healthy.  The reason for the scare (and the ominous liver warnings that accompany many kava products), is that a certain unscrupulous German manufacturer once put the wrong part of the  kava plant (stems) into a kava supplement, with fairly grave health consequences for the unfortunate users. It’s since been shown that the stems and leaves of kava are both toxic to the liver, though as these parts are never used in correct preparations of kava, there’s no reason to be either alarmed or to abstain from kava (put it like this, if someone was to make you a cup of coffee from the coffee plant’s roots rather than from its seeds, it probably wouldn’t do you much good either, though the chances of this happening are , like with kava, neglibile) .

Although the EU has seen the light and lifted the ban on importing kava into Europe, the IMB has not been so quick off its feet, and buying kava over the Internet is currently the only way of legally getting kava into Ireland. The best place to buy kava online is Kona Kava Farm (www.konakavafarm.com). I’d advise buying the root powder and order a generous supply (half a kilogram would be a good start). Most importantly, order lots. There’s nothing worse than running out of kava. If you become as much of a kava-boffin as me, running out of kava will send you sulking down to the Carry Out wondering why you didn’t buy more.

Read the “Kava: Worldwide Legal Status” article for in-depth details on the legal status of kava.