story by Paul Wood
photo by Chris McDonough
Hawai‘i is not known for its vodka. Not that we’re strangers to homemade hooch of various kinds. The ali‘i of Kamehameha’s generation, for example, possessed an appetite for liquor, and most of them maintained their own private distilleries in outback areas such as ‘Ewa and Wai‘anae. These stills produced rough stuff—coarse rum and ‘okolehao made from roasted ti stems. But vodka? That’s pretty audacious, that a little Maui start-up would try to make its mark with the national beverage of Muscovites.
“We’ve always been an adventurous family,” says Kyle Smith, patriarch of this venture. He and his wife, Diana, moved to Maui in 1970 to follow the “elusive surf dream”—translation: small VW, two surfboards racked on top, “working and surfing and raising kids on the beach.” Kyle made a living with commercial bottom fishing for eight years, then as a building contractor: “Maui accepts you if you work hard.” Today when the Ocean Vodka company assembles on the bottling line,
it’s all family: Mom, Dad, two sons Shay and Sye, their wives (respectively) Dyanna and Jennifer, several toddlers nearby. “My best friends are my sons,” says Kyle. “We surf, hike, fish and party together, and now we work together.” He credits the boys for inventing their new family product.
Since Ocean Vodka’s arrival on the scene, it has been praised as a crystalline spirit-water; to my palate it makes even Stoli tastes suspiciously like Sterno. Two secrets appear to lie behind its success. One is its all-organic distilling process, performed by a small artisan company in Idaho. (Unlike Kamehameha’s cronies, Ocean Vodka folks decided to hire experts for the tricky part. They do just the blending and bottling on Maui.) The other secret is its water, the essence of any vodka's regional flavor. This vodka’s water comes from 3,000 feet down in the ocean—chill, pure sea water captured off the Kona coast of the Big Island. This water undergoes complete desalinization, of course, but it retains an almost chewy thickness of magnesium, calcium and a host of other wonderfully revitalizing minerals.
“What we wanted all along,” says Kyle Smith, “was a product that tied us to the ocean. And here it is, some of the purest vodka on the planet.”