The next day I drive to Kula to meet Ocean Vodka’s Shay Smith on his newly opened farm and sugar cane plantation. Smith, the latest in a long line of North Shore lineage, has what could be the most locally ostentatious enterprise on Maui. Which, these days, is quite an achievement.
“We make clean, globally competitive vodka from sugar cane,” he says with an easy drawl as he walks the red path that intersects his farm’s 23 varieties of organic sugar cane. But that’s only half of it.
“We get our water from the deep ocean off of the Big Island, desalinate it while maintaining all its minerals, then use it in our vodka,” he says as I try to imagine the impetus to blaze such unheard-of trails in spirit’s production.
The idea, Smith says (like Chef Perry before him), came to him from the local media. “I was reading the paper and saw a story about a Japanese company on the Big Island that used ancient ocean water from 3,000 feet down, desalinated it, bottled it and shipped it to Japan for its mineral qualities.”
Smith struck a deal for this “ancient water” and the marketing material sort of wrote itself. But he didn’t stop there. The entire farm is organic and solar-powered. “We’re probably the only farm on Maui that’s totally off the grid,” he says. “Well, legally, anyway,” he adds, his hefty surfer’s frame bouncing with a chuckle.
One sip and it’s obvious Smith’s vodka stands apart. Despite taking the spirit to neutral, Smith tapers off at 198 proof, leaving a bit of sugar cane sweetness that, when combined with the deep water, results in a smoothness that lacks any bite or medicinal aftertaste.
And like any modern Maui culinary entrepreneur worth his evaporated, harvested sea salt, Smith’s enterprise is focused on a connection to the land. He points to a botanical garden in the middle of his property whose native herbs will be used in all manner of cocktail infusions once his tasting room and rental space opens later this year. The company will also expand into small-batch rum and gin production next year, tempting even more visitors to the site, some of whom will surely have noticed this exotic local elixir if they flew Hawaiian Airlines, where Ocean Vodka mini-bottles are sold.