The ocean is endless in its bounty: a plethora of delicious fish, crustaceans, and mollusks; Maldon sea salt; The Deadliest Catch; tales of half-naked half-fish ladies, mythological sea gods, and sunken treasure.
And now, even vodka.
Nestled along the western-facing slopes of Maui’s Haleakala volcano in the rich agricultural region of Kula, Hawaiian Sea Spirits Distillery and Organic Farm is doing something the world of spirits has never seen before: taking deep ocean water and turning it into premium booze.
The Smiths—a third-generation Hawaiian family—began experimenting with ocean water as a more eco-conscious, sustainable ingredient for vodka that was still unique in both taste and process. In 2005, the Smiths settled on using one of Maui’s largest life forces—the ocean that surrounds it—to create a vodka that pays homage to the nature of the island. Their self-proclaimed “family affair and true labor of love” combines sustainably harvested, organic sugar cane with mineral-rich seawater, which is sourced from 3,000 feet below the coast of Kona on the nearby Big Island.
Of course, there are all sorts of strange things from which vodka can be distilled, including rice and even quinoa. But it’s the seawater—along with distilled sugarcane, which is more typical in rum than vodka—that lends Ocean vodka its refined, subtle taste and solidifies it as one of the most innovative takes in modern vodka-making.
To get a better understanding of the process behind this one-of-a-kind vodka, I sat down with Hawaiian Sea Spirits’ master distiller, Bill Scott, to talk shop.
MUNCHIES: Hey, Bill. So why did you decide to use seawater to make your vodka?
Bill Scott: [It] was the creative idea of our founder, Shay Smith. It’s all about incorporating the true essence of Maui and Hawaii into our products. We live on tiny spots of land in a giant body of water. In Hawaii, we are so intrinsically bound to the ocean. We certainly respect the ocean as the giver of all life here, but at the same time, we try to enjoy all that it offers to our way of life. “Ocean” is the product name, and it is really the very DNA of our company. How better could we communicate our love for the ocean than to put some of it into every bottle?
How do you desalinize the water?
We have a partner located in Kona named Koyo USA. Koyo owns license and rights to use water that is drawn from a state-owned pipeline that drops over 3,000 feet below the ocean surface, just off the coast of Kona. The pipe taps into a water source that starts as snowmelt in the North Atlantic arctic region. It takes an estimated 2,000 years to arrive here by traveling [through] a very deep ocean current known as the Global Conveyor Belt. Koyo draws this pristine, undisturbed water up at a chilly 42 degrees [Fahrenheit] and they use an advanced filtration method called reverse osmosis to remove most of the salts. They have the ability to leave in the water some of the beneficial minerals—calcium, magnesium, and potassium—in quantities that makes our water a bona fide ocean mineral water.
We refer to the water as deep-ocean mineral water. It has a noticeably rich, round feel in the mouth. Some say [it’s] very slightly salty. I don’t know if I agree, but it is definitely rich in minerals.
How does water quality affect the quality of the vodka?
Ocean vodka is 60-percent water, so water is extremely important. The water used in final blending is always important in distilled spirits. Minor variations in water quality can have devastating effects on products.
How do you incorporate the sugar cane with the ocean water?
Mature sugarcane stalks are crushed to release sugar cane juice. The juice is collected and filtered, then placed into a fermenting tank. Yeast is added to the tank and the lid is closed for three to four days. During that time, yeast cells convert sugars to alcohol in a process called fermentation. When fermentation activity has stopped, the resulting liquid we call “beer” is heated in our pot still until the alcohol is vaporized. The alcohol vapors are collected and cooled back to liquid form, resulting in an impure alcohol/water solution of about 40 percent alcohol. This liquid is called “low wines spirit.” The low wines spirit is then redistilled in the continuous column system, resulting in spirits that are over 193 proof (96.5-percent pure alcohol). The finished spirits are blended to 80 proof with deep-ocean mineral water to make Ocean vodka. The vodka then is finally bottled.
If it’s made with sugarcane, what makes it vodka instead of rum?
Vodka is defined by spirits that are distilled to more than 190 proof and blended with water to bottling proof. Vodka can be made from any sugar-producing substrate. There are vodkas on the market being made from fruits, grains, corn, potatoes, rice, cassava, sugar cane—even lactose, which is milk sugar. Rum, like our very own Deep Island Hawaiian Rum, has to be made from sugarcane or sugarcane byproducts, and it cannot be distilled to strength over 189.9 proof. The lower proof at distillation results in the characteristic flavor of rum.
Sustainable practices are very important to you as a company. How is your sugarcane harvesting method different from other farmers on the islands?
Sugarcane harvest is a very contentious issue in Hawaii, especially Maui. About 35,000 acres of sugarcane [are] growing on Maui today. It is common practice for farmers to openly burn mature sugarcane fields to reduce leaf waste mass and to slightly dry out the cane stalks in order to make their processing plants more efficient. Huge plumes of smoke go up into the air here several times a week during harvest season, resulting in ash fallout, smoky air, and all of the side effects associated [with that]. Our harvest method is different. We don’t open burn any fields. We cut the cane stalks at the peak of sugar production and press them immediately. We either mulch or compost the green leaf waste, adding it back to the soil as nutrient.
Thanks for talking with me, Bill.