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Cocktail Hour: A New Wave of Hawaiian Spirits

Aloha Mary cocktail from Ocean Vodka. Credit: Jessica Pearl

Aloha Mary cocktail from Ocean Vodka. Credit: Jessica Pearl

Hawaii has always had a cocktail culture — as evidenced by such drinks like the Mai Tai, Piña Colada and Blue Hawaiian — but one based not as much on quality as on packing a colorful and potent punch.

To many mainlanders, that’s because Hawaii is for them vacationland, a place to enjoy the mildly tropical weather and have drinks served in coconut shells with a tiny umbrella. It’s an image of Hawaii that dates to when Elvis was alive, thin and young.

But just as with food, the attitude toward Hawaiian spirits is slowly beginning to change in the islands. As chefs like Ed Kenney of the restaurant Town in Honolulu have shown, there is a way to please diners by emphasizing locally raised greens and meats rather than the traditional gravy-covered mounds of rice.

And small distillers are starting to make better rums, vodkas and other spirits from local ingredients, accenting a sense of history by reclaiming former sugarcane and pineapple plantations.

Ocean Organic Vodka is one of them, a multigenerational family-run, 80-acre farm and distillery on Maui making vodka out of sugarcane.

Kyle and Diana Smith and their kids Shay and Sye were looking for a way to bring sustainable agriculture to Hawaii and make a non-perishable product. Cocktail aficionados who love to experiment, they settled on vodka, the base of their favorite martinis and more.

To make the vodka, they source seawater that originates 3,000 feet below Hawaii’s Big Island and surfaces near the Kona Coast. High in potassium, calcium and magnesium, the water is then purified and desalinated through reverse osmosis and mixed with fermented sugar cane that they grow.

The result is a crisp, clean-drinking spirit subtle in high-toned citrus notes. Open for tours, Ocean Vodka plans to expand into making rum and whiskeys in the coming years.

Haleakala Distillers is also on Maui, a craft rum distillery run by Jim and Leslie Sargent that makes dark rum, gold rum, 155-proof “Extreme” rum, pineapple-flavored rum and Okolehao. That’s a spirit made from ti root, a Hawaiian herb that Sargent says reminds some people of amaretto, and it goes into a drink called Leilani’s Tsunami, blended with passionfruit, orange, guava and lime juices and Sprite over ice.

A few ‘back’ stories on Hawaiian spirits

Father-son team Maui Distillers produce Old Lahaina Rum in an old sugar mill in the town of Paia. Driven by frustration over the fact that most “Hawaiian” rums were made on the mainland, they were able to source a special molasses from Maui’s Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar, the last operating sugar plantation in Hawaii. Maui Distillers launched in 2004, becoming the first distillery on Maui in 20 years, making dark, silver and gold rums.

Haliimaile Distilling Company is another Maui vodka maker, producing small batches from extra-sweet Maui pineapples, while Maui Brewing founder Garrett Marrero is expanding his brewery in the central part of Maui to soon distill bourbon and spirits based on local breadfruit.

And there’s Kauai, where it is believed Captain James Cook was accompanied by barrels of rum when he first made landfall in 1778. It is the home of Koloa Rum Company, the first and only licensed distillery on the island. Koloa Rum was named for a once-vibrant sugar plantation and mill. Now it is growing its own sugarcane and experimenting with using fresh-pressed cane juice instead of processed sugar. Koloa is devoted to single-batch white, gold, dark and spice rums; its spice rum is rated highly by F. Paul Pacult’s “Spirit Journal” and others. Koloa runs a tasting room and company store from its historic Kilohana Plantation location.

Aloha Mary

Courtesy of Ocean Vodka

Serves 1


2 ounces vodka (for example, Ocean Vodka)

3 ounces tomato juice

½ ounces fresh lemon juice

3 dashes Worcestershire Sauce

2 drops Tabasco


1. Pour ingredients into shaker over ice.

2. Shake vigorously and pour in a tall glass.

3. Salt and pepper to taste, garnish with fresh vegetables.

Top photo: Aloha Mary. Credit: Jessica Pearl

Zester Daily contributor Virginie Boone is a Sonoma Valley-based wine writer. She has reported on the Northern California wine scene for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and its affiliate food and wine magazine, Savor, and is a contributing reviewer of California wines for Wine Enthusiast.

  • Dave 6·29·13

    oh wow, you forgot the most popular and populous Hawaiian island of Oahu, where Island Distillers is located. Makers of Hawaiian Vodka, Hawaiian Coconut Vodka, and Hawaiian Moonshine, which is a 100 proof reincarnation of the original Hawaiian liquor made in 1790.

  • Ted 7·9·13

    Great article. I particularly love martinis made with Ocean Vodka. All vodkas are definitely NOT alike- and it is truly special.