Inside Maui's OCEAN Organic Vodka distillery

By Natalie B. Compton
Updated May 14, 2018
Credit: Photo by Natalie B. Compton

It's thick, the water the tour guide pours at the OCEAN Organic Vodka distillery’s bar in Maui, Hawaii. Maybe it’s a placebo effect—she just told us that the water is desalinized deep ocean water and shares the same minerals as human blood. The water’s mineral content makes gives it a thicker, more voluptuous mouthfeel, just like the blood pumping through your veins. Apparently it’s sold as a health drink in Japan. Healthful or not, the water translates nicely into the vodka the guide pours next.

The rolling hills of upcountry Maui is an agricultural paradise. Tourists can take a break from the beach and head inland to tour lavender fields (aka eat lavender scones), goat farms (aka sample goat cheese), and a winery (aka drink pineapple wine). It’s also a place where pre-noon vodka tasting has become the norm thanks to the rising popularity of OCEAN.

Maui-born Shay Smith was on a tour of the Hawaii Authority’s Ocean Science and Technology Park when he got the idea to make vodka using deep sea water. By 2005, his idea had became a reality and was being sold in blue orb bottles. Smith uses organic, sustainably harvested sugar cane to make the 190-proof vodka (they cultivate more than 30 varieties of Polynesian sugarcane on the 80-acre property). The vodka is then brought down to a more palatable 80 proof by blending it with the deep sea water.

Credit: Photo by Natalie B. Compton

That water originated from a glacier in Greenland that melted more than 2,000 years ago, and deep ocean currents brought the water to the Big Island of Hawaii’s Kona Coast. OCEAN partners with the Koyo Company that leases the facility from the State of Hawaii to bring the water up from its 3,000-feet depths to their distillery in Maui. “We use the deep ocean mineral water, which comprises approximately 50 percent of the final product,” Jim Grannan, head of marketing for Ocean Vodka, tells me. “As the water retains minerals such as calcium, potassium, and magnesium, these impart a type of seasoning and soft finishing mouthfeel.”

As if the method weren't complicated enough, just running a business in Hawaii isn't easy as most goods need to be imported. “The biggest challenge in operating a consumer packaged-goods company is getting our glass bottles and other component and equipment needs,” Grannan said. “Hawaii is the most remote location on the planet, which makes getting anything in a timely manner somewhat difficult.”

Back at the bar, our tour group tastes the straight vodka from a plastic cup, then cuts it further yet with more deep sea water.The spirit opens up more and becomes more gentle. My mind wanders to visions of salty bloody marys as the tour concludes in the gift shop.