Maui’s Changing Landscape | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | PART SIX in our yearlong look at the future of Maui agriculture
Story by Sarah Ruppenthal | Photography by Jason Moore & Brad Paulson
Ask anyone who rises before dawn to harvest, or spends long evenings poring over production spreadsheets, and they’ll tell you farming isn’t for the faint of heart—but it takes heart to succeed.
On Maui, sugar and large-scale pineapple plantations may be a thing of the past, but new, smaller farms are cropping up to take their place. In this holiday season, we take a look at four whose products are little indulgences meant to be shared. But that doesn’t make them frivolous. These farmers, too, share common ground: Their stories reflect the entrepreneurial spirit that may very well keep agriculture alive on Maui.
Growing against the Grain
Inspiration comes in many forms, and for Hawaii Sea Spirits Organic Farm and Distillery founder and CEO Shay Smith, it was an ice-cold pau hana (after work) cocktail. Fifteen years ago, Shay was sipping a vodka soda as he mulled over ideas for a homegrown agricultural product that would succeed in the global market. That’s when he realized the answer was right in front of him. “I wanted to make something that could compete with Grey Goose.”
He did. Hawaii Sea Spirits’ Ocean Organic Vodka is now sold in all fifty states and Ontario, Canada. The spirit has earned recognition for its ingredients, taste, and distinctive orb-shaped bottle—inspired by antique glass fishing floats and angled to mimic Earth’s axis. (Customers send Shay photos of bottles cleverly repurposed as fish bowls, planters, centerpieces, even a snowman.)
It didn’t happen overnight. Soon after settling on vodka for his agricultural venture, Shay phoned master distiller Bill Scott to propose a then-novel idea: distilling vodka from organic sugarcane and blending it with mineral-rich water pumped from depths of 3,000 feet off Hawai‘i Island’s Kona coast.
Conventional wisdom has it that rum is made from sugarcane; vodka from potatoes, corn or rye. But vodka can be made from practically any starch- or sugar-rich plant—grapes, soybeans, even milk whey. (Shay considered distilling taro, but after unsuccessful attempts, opted for sugarcane.) “It was a balance of science and practicality,” he says. “I knew it could be done, and we would be using ingredients that were right at our fingertips.”
After a few trial batches and taste tests, Shay and Bill debuted the first bottle of Ocean Organic Vodka in 2006. Today, Shay’s eighty-acre organic farm grows more than thirty varieties of sugarcane, all hand-harvested at maturity, processed in the site’s solar-powered distillery, and blended with deep-ocean water that is organically purified and desalinated through a natural filtration process that eliminates sodium, but hangs on to minerals like potassium, calcium and magnesium.
Today the company is enjoying success, and recently added a new spirit, Deep Island Hawaiian Rum, to great acclaim. Shay admits it didn’t come easy. “Being an entrepreneur is not a nine-to-five job, it’s more like 24/7. You live it, breathe it. But it’s incredibly rewarding.”