Interest piece: From farm to vodka bottle

Dirty, aggressive, soapy, smooth — probably not ways you would personally describe vodka, but for groundbreaking Hawaiian company Ocean Vodka, it’s their native tongue.

Ocean Vodka, a division of Hawai’i Sea Spirits, is the first deep ocean organic vodka on the planet. To make their products happen, it required reimagining the entire distillation process, from deep ocean sourcing to special manufacturing.

Started by the Smith family in 2005, the Maui-based business adds a whole new dimension to ‘paddock to plate’ or ‘farm to factory’ like many of the brands showcasing at Fine Food Australia in 2018.

 

From ‘farm to bottle’

Most vodka is made from grain, potato or corn, but being eco-entrepreneurs, the Smiths also wanted to do something different here.

They started the business in downtown Kahului, Maui in a small warehouse before landing on a perfect base to build up their dream business: 80-acres of cattle territory that’s 1000-feet above the Pacific Ocean with 360-degree views of land and sea. Adding to the attraction is a 10,000-feet dormant volcano sitting in the backdrop, Haleakala, and the fact the farm is located in the charming upcountry Maui, home to other sustainable ‘open house’ businesses.

“More important than creating a superior vodka though was creating something that supported the Maui community and operating with environmental responsibility, where we could actually raise awareness for oceanic conservation,” says an Ocean Vodka tour guide whose been with the company since its first year.

“We all have a fundamental understanding here that, whatever we put into the land, ultimately ends up in the ocean — it’s not magic, just gravity — and we need to do anything we can to help those processes along the way. We’re a small island in the middle of the Pacific and if we don’t take care of our resources we figure it out real quick.”

It’s no wonder they’ve welcomed more than 200,000 visitors to their farm in the last five years. That in itself reveals the payoff of creating a brand that can be ‘experienced’ in the flesh. The business grew at a rate of 70 per cent in 2017 alone, after having come off a record year of growth in 2016 as well.

 

Getting the business notes right

Sugarcane, enriched by the Maui climate, forms the base of Ocean Vodka, which is said to make a difference in the distilling room compared to other bases. The sugarcane comes “off the still” at 193-196-proof, which is essentially almost pure alcohol, making it a cleaner product before it’s cut to 80-proof to make Ocean Vodka. It’s a proprietary distillation process.

“We grow about 30 types of sugarcane here, out of the hundred in the world, some tasting like caramel, others golden pear, red delicious apple, and even one with a chocolate breakfast cereal kind of taste,” explains the tour guide.

“We don’t light the entire field at once, as cane burn is very bad for the land, instead we hand-select and hand-harvest the sugarcane. What comes out the other side of the distillation process, along with an alcoholic product, is pulverised sugarcane stock when then goes right back into the field — a quarter-mile long compost pile.”

These technicals may not matter to the drinker on the surface, but the Smiths believe these notes in the vodka whisper a “clean and creamy” taste that’s different to the “dirty and sticky” taste of more traditional vodka.

The distillery is powered by 240 solar panels that generate enough energy to power 12-14 average family homes, and the well house goes down to 1100-feet and is used for irrigation of grass and the sugarcane fields.

The real trade secret of the business comes from Hawaii’s Big Island though, and it’s what’s helped  them reach all corners of the globe from Australia to Japan.

When life hands you salt water…

It took one and a half years for the Smiths youngest son, Shay, then 27, to take his idea from concept to reality. He landed on the idea of deep ocean mineral water, and quite literally, decided to make vodka with it.

It’s the only distillery in the world using USDA-certified deep ocean mineral water, sourced from the Big Island.

“The water itself starts off as glacier milk and green, as that milk it releases a mineral-rich water that goes into a vessel trough, or furnace in the ocean, and depending on what scientist you talk to, it takes anywhere from 500-2000 years to go from the deep ocean to the coast of Kona,” explains the tour guide.

“The water itself sells for between $US12-30 per litre in Japan as a ‘health drink’ because it’s the most pure ocean water in the world — no bacteria, contamination, man-made chemicals. After running through a desalination process, all that’s left are the trace minerals like potassium, calcium and magnesium — which funnily enough are in the exact same proportion, in terms of percentages, to our blood plasma.”

According to the Smiths, there are only two things that matter to vodka — the water source and the distillation process. The rest is of little importance.

“At the end of the day, vodka is a colourless, odourless, tasteless spirit, so when a market is saturated with products all the same like that, it all becomes marketing speak or you have to do something to differentiate yourself,” the company believes.

“Simple differentiation of good water and good distillation, that really separates the men from the boys. Those two things can eliminate 90 per cent of the vodkas on the market, even those that are big name brands.”

Having impressed customers with their vodka, the Smiths have also taken to bottling rum, which is actually almost the same product as vodka, with just a few tweaks to the process. They hint at developing their product line further in the future, but as per their brand values, will only produce sustainably sourced and naturally flavoured beverages — and the rest remains a secret.

Visit Ocean Vodka for more information.

Find out more about the latest culinary trends at this year’s Drinks Collective Show from 10-12 September at Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre.

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