Muddled on Maui: A Libation Vacation

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Saturday February 11, 2017
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This past December, to counteract a hectic Thanksgiving weekend full of large family gatherings, my partner and I planned a just-the-two-of us getaway to Maui.

It rained.

So we poured.

Days that would have been dedicated to beaches, hikes, and other outdoor activities turned into a Lost Weekend imbibing the island's local libations.

While we found the inevitable surplus of gimmicky tipples served in coconut shells and hollowed out pineapples, we also encountered some intriguing products that, exported to the Bay Area, can add a touch of the tropics to midwinter parties without a tacky tiki in sight.

Before we rolled out of bed our first morning at the Westin Resort & Spa on Maui's northeasterly Ka'anapali coast, we watched the fleeting blue of early morning sky darken, then crack open in a torrent.

Fortunately, the hotel's activity desk was quick to recommend an outing built around liquids other than rainwater: a visit to the Hawaii Sea Spirits organic farm and distillery for a tour and tasting.

This family-owned and operated enterprise has been producing its signature Ocean Vodka since 2006, but its solar-powered production and bottling facility was completed just four years ago. Situated on 8,000 fertile acres in Maui's upcountry, just a 45-minute drive from the island's northwestern resort hub, it's open to the public for visits seven days a week.

CEO Shay Smith is the son of a longtime Maui real estate developer, and his continuing commitment to the Hawaiian economy is evident in the evolution of his vodka over time.

For the first several years of its production, Ocean was made with an alcohol base distilled from corn and rye shipped to Maui from Idaho. What made it a "Hawaiian" vodka, other than Smith's savvy marketing, was the water used in the blending process: Desalinated ocean water pumped from a current 3,000 feet below the surface of the Hawaiian Pacific. Originating from glacial melt in Iceland and Greenland (Screwdriver in Reykjavik, anyone?) this deep sea water's mineral content �- including calcium and potassium - lends Ocean a powdery softness on the palate that makes it enjoyable not only in cocktails, but even sipped straight.

Bill Scott (left) master distiller, and Shay Smith, founder of Hawaii Sea Spirits organic spirits farm.

With the brand's early success, the Smith family increased their commitment to keeping things local, discarding midwestern grain juice to begin distilling their alcohol from organic sugarcane, long a staple crop in Maui. Until their full crop reaches maturity, the firm will import much of its cane juice from organic farms in South America, but plans to ultimately use only homegrown product in Ocean Vodka, as well as their second offering, Deep Island Rum, still in very limited distributed.

Ocean is available at spirits shops throughout the Bay Area, instantly recognizable on the shelf thanks to a unique near-spherical blue-tinted bottle, fashioned after antique glass fishing net floats (Empties are actually sold as collectors' items on eBay).

Hawaii Sea Spirits. 4051 Omaopio Road, Kula. 808-877-0009. Tours available 9:30 a.m to 5pm daily.

While Ocean is smooth enough to drink straight up, vodka is far more frequently served in cocktails. And at Auntie's Kitchen, an open-to-the-public beachside eatery on the grounds of the Westin, Cy Gabourie �, the resort's director of bars and restaurants, has come up with a Hawaiian-accented spin on a classic that San Francisco gastronomes will find totally on trend: the Poke Bloody Mary.

His spicy, savory Grey Goose-based Mary is served with a shot glass of diced, lightly marinated ahi tuna that can be nibbled as an accompaniment or set aswim in the veggie garnished larger glass. (Protein, as well as alcohol, is an important part of your balanced breakfast.).

While the combination of fish and swizzle may strike you as peculiar at first, remember those Bloody brunches you've enjoyed with smoked salmon and bagels. And recall the Canadian version of a Bloody Mary, the Ceasar, which incorporates briny clam broth in the mix.

Inspired by the Bay Area's recent poke bowl and pickling crazes, home bartenders should be able to take the Poke Mary to new heights. Japanese pickled vegetables, soy sauce, mirin, scallions, hot sauces, bonito flakes, and furikake all pair well with both fish and tomato juice cocktails and improvisation, in both the fish marinade and the cocktail base are encouraged.

Auntie's Kitchen. 6 Kai Ala Drive. Lahaina. 808-667-3259.

More a beer drinker than a cocktail connoisseur? For over a decade, the Maui Brewing Company has been the lead player in Hawaii's craft beer scene, successfully building mainland distribution channels while continuing to develop a phenomenal array of limited edition brews incorporating locally grown products and traditional Hawaiian flavors.

The company was founded in 2005 by Garrett Marerro, a graduate of U.C. Davis who found early inspiration at Bay Area breweries including San Francisco's Thirsty Bear and Berkeley's Triple Rock.

Marerro turned to brewing as a business after burning out in his initial career as a financial consultant. But his business skills have been a boon as he's grown the company from a single small production brewpub making 400 barrels a year to multiple locations and a large central production facility, employing over 100 locals and a capacity of over 100,000 barrels anyally.

It's at this facility, in Kihei, that visitors are able to see the brewing process up close on six small group tours every day, each limited to 16 people to allow for informed discussion and questions about the craft and business of beer making, rather than the purely promotional spiel heard on many a brewery tour.

At the production facility's tasting room� �-as well as the company's brewpub in touristy Lahaina town- guests can try not only the flagship and seasonal beers that are canned and distributed nationally, but on-site only "experiments" that may ultimately be refined and produced on a broader scale.

Over the years, Maui Brewing has incorporated the likes of local papaya, guava, mango, lemongrass, honey, strawberries , breadfruit, cocoa and chili peppers in their beers, which are never always thoughtfully balanced and never created for novelty's sake.

In addition to rotating limited editions, flagship Maui Brewing beers readily available in cans at Bay Area retailers include Coconut Hiwa Porter and citrus-tinged Big Swell IPA.

Maui Brewing Company. Brewery and Tasting Room: 605 Lipoa Parkway, Kihei. Brewpub: Kahana Gateway Center, 4405 Honoapiilani Hwy. #217, Lahaina. 808-669-3474.

Alas, for oenophiles, Hawaiian wines don't have much to offer relative to our homegrown California bounty, but that hasn't stopped folks from trying. If nothing else, the heavily promoted Maui Winery offers a good excuse for an incredibly scenic drive across the island's upcountry, with striking views of the southwestern shores.

The winery is set on a plot of land that once served as a holiday retreat for King Kalakua and Queen Kapi'olani, the last reigning monarchs of the Hawaiian islands. The original buildings on the site, including a one-time jail, lovely flower gardens, and the tour guides' knowledge of Hawaiian history make for a leisurely afternoon.

If you're hellbent on a drinkable souvenir, skip the local grape offerings and try the Maui Blanc, a pineapple wine that's not altogether cloying, but still would be better incorporated in a sorbet or splashed over a fruit salad than consumed as a beverage.

Maui Winery. 14815 Pilani Highway. Kula. 808-878-6058.

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