Ocean Vodka offers tours of Maui distillery
BY CHRISTIE WILSON / firstname.lastname@example.org
KULA, Maui » When family and friends come calling to Maui, I always recommend they pry themselves off the beach to spend a day exploring the Upcountry region. Along with crisp air, sweeping vistas and funky little country towns, there’s an ever-growing number of agritourism enterprises sure to please foodies and sightseers alike.
Hawaii Sea Spirits’ Ocean Vodka is the newest entry in the island’s farm tour circuit, starting sampling tours last month at its 80-acre grounds on the lower elevation of Haleakala.
When I last visited the Smith family’s solar-powered craft distillery in March, they were awaiting the arrival of a custom-designed, four-column distillation system from Vendome Copper & Brass Works Inc. in Kentucky while setting up their 6,000-square-foot facility and installing landscaping.
OCEAN VODKA ORGANIC FARM & DISTILLERY TOUR
» Where: 4051 Omaopio Road, Kula, Maui
When I checked back in with them last month, the operation was in full swing. Tours are offered daily; the cost is $10 per person ($25 with lunch), which includes sampling and a take-home souvenir Ocean Vodka shot glass for those 21 and over. Visitors can also enjoy a small air-conditioned gift shop and a lovely “martini garden.”
A large lawn was created to host barbecues and other events. The area is bordered in uala (sweet potato) planted by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which will return next year to harvest the staple for the Hokule‘a’s around-the-world voyage.
And the vodka, made from certified organic sugar cane and Kona deep-ocean mineral water, was as clean and smooth as always. (Just Wednesday, Dec. 4, Hawaii Sea Spirits announced plans to expand its line of spirits next year to include white, gold and oak-aged dark rums, whiskey, bourbon and liqueurs.)
Lavender, basil, strawberry and other herbs and fruit grow in the martini garden, which is designed in the shape of an orchid. The grounds also are planted with small stands of more than 20 varieties of sugar cane. (Ocean Vodka isn’t able yet to grow enough organic cane to support production, so the company imports organic sugar juice from the mainland and South America.)
As I sidled up to the outdoor koa tasting bar, Hawaii Sea Spirits President and CEO Shay Smith cracked open a vintage barrel-shaped chest used to store supplies used for tastings.
After pouring us shots, he explained the first sip is the strongest and has the most “alcohol impact” because the palate is “fresh.”
“After the second and third sips, the cleanness of the alcohol starts to come through, with the little sweetness of sugar cane, and you begin to notice the mouth feel, the texture of the minerals from the ocean water.”
Smith then provided me with a peek inside the distillery, where family members and employee C.J. Elizares were busy bottling the latest batch of 80-proof vodka. After Elizares loaded empty — and stylishly designed — Ocean Vodka bottles onto the assembly line, an automated dispenser filled them with distillate. Smith’s father, Kyle, used a mallet to gently tap a cork into each one, mom Diana placed wrappers on top for the seal, and sister Nicole packed the finished product into cases.
The distillery has about 10 employees, most of them Smith family members.
Ocean Vodka, served exclusively aboard Hawaiian Airlines flights since 2007, is available in 36 states and in Canada. Suggested retail price is $32.99 for a 750-ml bottle.
To make a day of your Upcountry drive, visit Surfing Goat Dairy, just up the road from Ocean Vodka for tours and tastings; Alii Kula Lavender at 1100 Waipoli Road, where you can enjoy lavender scones and lavender tea and coffee; Maui’s Winery-Tedeschi Vineyards in Ulupalakua, which offers free wine tasting and wonderful picnic grounds; and O’o Farm, which supplies Pacific’O and I‘O restaurants in Lahaina and offers a gourmet tour and lunch.
Christie Wilson is Today/Features Editor at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and has lived on Maui for 28 years.