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On a recent, spur-of-the-moment mini vacation to Maui, my wife and I more or less wandered into a fascinating tour of the Hawaii Sea Spirits distillery and sugarcane farm in Kula. We had finished a tour of the Surfing Goat Dairy (we’re hoping to start our own goat farm someday), and we decided to stop in at the dairy’s neighbor Hawaii Sea Spirits on a whim. We were glad we did because Hawaii Sea Spirits is one of the most innovative distillers in the world. And their Ocean Vodka is the best I’ve ever had.
The family-owned distillery sits on 80 acres on the slopes of Haleakala Crater in Upcountry Maui and it offers enchanting views of the soaring volcano, the plains and sugarcane fields of Central Maui, and the ragged, brooding West Maui Mountains. A colossal cruise ship lumbered into Kahului Harbor far below as we arrived. Our tour guide Gina was as enthusiastic about the farm and distillery as she was expert in its workings.
Ocean Vodka is the distillery’s flagship brand, and since beginning operations in 2005, the unique product is now distributed in 36 states and 2 Canadian provinces with plans to expand into the global market. Ocean Vodka has been the exclusive vodka of Hawaiian Air since 2007. It has won multiple national and international awards. Hawaii Sea Spirits also recently introduced its Wave Deep Island Hawaiian Rum.
The technologies and practices at Hawaii Sea Spirits are purposefully sustainable and remarkably innovative. Ocean Vodka is made from sugarcane. All vodka is made from sugar, but other distilleries around the world use other sources like potatoes or beets.
What is so special about Hawaii Sea Spirits and its Ocean Vodka is that the sugarcane is grown right there on the farm. There are dozens of varieties of sugarcane being grown, all of them native to Hawaii and possessed of their own unique qualities of color, taste and texture.
The farm’s practices reflect the owners’ deep love and respect for Hawaii’s land and sea. The cane is grown in clusters, and rather than being burned for harvest (which is a contentious issue on Maui), only mature cane stalks are taken. Younger stalks, or keiki, are left to grow. Crushed cane is returned to the soil as mulch. Solar technologies on the farm and in the distillery make Hawaii Sea Spirits considerably less reliant on conventional fossil fuel energy. Even the spherical counterbalanced bottles are made from recycled glass, designed in-house to resemble familiar glass fishing floats of long ago.
The water used in the process is also unique among the world’s distilleries (there are more than 700 in the U.S. alone). It comes from glacial melt in Greenland, carried by deepwater currents that circle the globe into Hawaiian waters. It is collected from 3000 feet below the sea surface in waters off of the Kona Coast. It is desalinated in an innovative process that removes salts but leaves the water rich in natural essential minerals. Water from the same sources is collected for bottling as drinking water that sells for $20 per bottle in Japan.
As our guide Gina showed us the cane press and giant, gleaming stainless steel tanks and discussed the difference between pot stills and continuous stills, it was easy to see that the operations at Hawaii Sea Spirits are incredibly focused and precise. It struck me how incredibly ambitious the vision was, and how remarkable the success of Ocean Vodka is.
After a visit to the bottling room, where staffers carefully orchestrated a multi-step process, we moved on to the outdoor tasting bar for a sample of the fine spirit we had learned so much about. Ocean Vodka was, of course, exquisite. It offered hints of banana, ginger, and lavender. Gina told us that different people pick up different flavors because everyone’s palate is unique.
Next to the tasting bar is a small garden, lush with Kula lavender, local citrus, passionfruit, and strawberries. Gina invited us to collect clippings to take make our own infusions for custom cocktails at home.
At the end of the tour Gina directed us to the expansive banquet area on the property, where weddings and other special events are frequently held. The central Maui plain stretched out before us as the clouds hugged the mountains of west Maui. An incoming flight banked downward in a graceful arc toward the tarmac at Kahului Airport.
My wife and I knew we’d be leaving soon after our brief holiday, but we were happy to have wandered into the Hawaii Sea Spirits farm and distillery tour and a real taste of Maui.