Ocean Vodka’s bottle turns heads with its distinctive tilt. // © 2017 Hawaii Sea Spirits
Feature image (above): Ocean Vodka Sampling.jpg: Hawaii Sea Spirits’ guided tour ends with a tasting of its vodka and rum. // © 2017 Kristin Hettermann
Whether clients like their libations shaken or stirred, the Hawaii Sea Spirits Organic Farm and Distillery guided tour and tasting straight-up satisfies. Guests see each step of the production process — from farm to bottle — for the company’s Ocean Vodka. Then, they sip the heady results.
Located in Kula, Maui, Hawaii Sea Spirits spreads out across 80 acres on the slopes of Haleakala volcano, making it a great stop during a day of upcountry exploration.
During my tour, our guide, Ana, began with some history of the company, which was launched in 2006. The Hawaii-based Smith family wanted to create an organic, self-sufficient operation that raises environmental awareness and helps support the local economy. They decided to make vodka, which they saw as a perfect way to celebrate the blessings of living in the islands.
Their approach to vodka-making stands apart, Ana told us, because it uses ocean mineral water sourced from 3,000 feet below the Kona Coast of Hawaii Island. The water contains traces of potassium, magnesium and calcium, which create a subtly unique flavor in the finished product.
Ocean Vodka’s other key ingredient is organic Hawaiian sugarcane. The farm grows and works with 30 varieties of cane, which is nurtured by deep well water and tropical sunshine. As our tour group strolled through a field of the colorful stalks, Ana pointed out labels with their Hawaiian names.
“The Smiths want to preserve the culture and heritage of the cane,” she said.
She added that all the varieties have different water and sugar contents, and all of it is hand-harvested.
Ana then led us to the sugarcane crusher and described how it extracts juice. From there, the fresh-pressed juice heads to fermentation tanks and goes through a distilling process.
Next, we stepped into the bottling room. Bathed in natural light, the area is buzzing with employees at the bottle-filling station, corking station and packing station. Some Smith family surfing photos hang on the wall, injecting a friendly sense of place to the setting.
In the adjacent warehouse, we looked at the distinctive Ocean Vodka bottle, which is round and tipped sideways. Ana explained that Shay Smith, CEO of Hawaii Sea Spirits, based the design on a traditional glass fishing float, which is a longtime symbol of Hawaii’s Japanese fishing culture.
“Then, he decided to tilt the bottle at an angle to represent the tilt of the earth’s axis,” Ana said.
Packaging is also key in the oversaturated market, she added.
Our last stop was the open-air tasting pavilion. Ana set up small glasses and pulled out a few bottles. First, we savored the deep sea water, as pure as any water I can remember. We moved on to a vodka, and finally a clear rum, which is a newer product from the company. Every taste inspired conversation and conviviality.
Also notable is “The Point,” the farm’s outdoor event space. It features a large lawn overlooking an expansive Maui shoreline, and its picnic tables provide a dramatic perch for pre- or post-tour noshing. The Point can host parties for up to 1,800 people.
In addition, the farm features what it calls the “martini garden” — with plants such as lavender, citrus, passionfruit, pineapple and strawberries — and a visitor center.
Later, Shay Smith told me that he believes taste is a keen way to recall happy memories. For that reason, he hopes his guests buy Ocean Vodka to take home with them. Hawaii Sea Spirits’ beverages also are available for purchase online and across the mainland U.S.
“Sipping the product at a later date reminds clients of their Maui experience, which can lead to a lasting emotional high,” Smith said. “Our tour gives visitors another perspective on the island through an understanding of our culture and a connection with Mother Earth.”
Open to clients 21 years and older, daily tours take place every 30 minutes from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The cost of $12 per person includes a souvenir shot glass.