When you think of tropical paradise, piña coladas or mai tais with dainty umbrellas, enjoyed exclusively on a towel in the sand overlooking the waves, naturally come to mind.
The problem is that I’m not one to just lie in the sand, and I’m not a fan of sugary cocktails.
After I took Virgin America’s inaugural flight on its new San Francisco-to-Maui route, I went on a search for beach and mai tai alternatives. It didn’t take long to discover that there’s a lengthy menu of beverages indigenous to Maui.
I set out to sample all the spirits made in Maui. Along the way I was met with a few surprises, like the nonalcoholic elixirs noni and kombucha, and a few interesting characters just filled with true Maui pride.
My liquid diet began the moment the Virgin America flight took off and we were served POG mimosas, a signature cocktail created especially for the route — a mix of Maui’s popular POG (passion fruit, orange and guava fruit juices) and champagne.
The tart, sweet and effervescence transported me straight into vacation mode. (Photo: Jen Birn)
When I walked into my room at the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa, I was greeted by printed instructions and portioned ingredients to make the hotel’s Flight 39 cocktail, created in honor of Virgin America’s move to Maui.
What a welcome. (Photo: Jen Birn)
While unwinding from a day of travel with the concoction — made from 1 oz. Ocean vodka (made in Maui), 1 oz. cranberry juice, 2 oz. pineapple juice, a lime wedge, and a maraschino cherry — I crafted a drinking itinerary that included a vineyard, a brewery, a farm, a distillery and more.
You’ll need to properly hydrate before embarking on an islandwide spirits crawl. Stumbling upon this slice of heaven in a truck was one of the happiest accidents of our trip. Coconut Caboose is a food truck just off the road (there’s only one main road) in Lahaina right next to one of the scenic overlooks.
Coconut juice is the perfect hydration vehicle. (Photo: Jen Birn)
They sell coconuts that fell or were cut from the tree that morning and stick a straw in it so you can drink the all-natural coconut water. When you’ve finished it, they take a machete and chop the coconut in half so you can eat all the nutritious jellylike meat inside. We also indulged in the coconut cream ice cream, a small delight made from two mashed-up coconuts and cream.
The only way to get to Maui Wine is via Highway 37 through Upcountry. It’s a magnificent drive to a magical place, a vineyard and a winery a mile apart with majestic views in between. The winery, now called Ulupalakua Ranch, has a rich history, and at its center is a building coined King’s Cottage, since it was once a mountain retreat for King Kalākaua, the last reigning king of Hawaii!
After taking in a view like this, you may never go to Napa again. (Photo: Jen Birn)
The newest addition to the property is a private tasting room in what was once a jail when the property functioned as a plantation in the 1800s. Maui Wine’s director of sales and marketing, Joe Hegele, gave us a spirited tasting of a selection of Maui Wines with a well-versed explanation before each glass.
Given Maui’s climate, it’s curious so many varieties of grapes, from syrah to chenin-viognier, would flourish here, but trial, error and experimentation have yielded results exceeding expectations. These varieties are in addition to Maui Wine’s sparkling rosé, Lokelani, which delights the senses in every way, and the sparkling pineapple wine they’ve become famous for producing and exporting to the mainland.
Maui Gold pineapples are crushed on site to produce thousands of gallons of juice for the wines each month. In addition to being used in their own pineapple wines, the juice is shared with Maui Brewing Company for their Mana Wheat Ale and the Haliimaile Distillery for their Pau Maui vodka.
Whether you’re an oenophile or simply want to explore the hidden gems of the region, the Maui Wine tour is an unforgettable destination that will remain permanently seared in your brain. And Joe’s hospitality is infectious and invigorating.
If we started to get sleepy in the backseat of the car after sampling so many sensational wines, we were given an instant jolt of energy by just meeting Haliimaile’s master distiller, Mark Nigbur. Mark looks like a cross between Rod Stewart and Sammy Hagar turned permanent surfer dude, though he swears his shock of blond locks is inspired by Richard Branson.
He’s responsible for the creative spirits made here, and his passion and enthusiasm made me fancy him a delightful mad scientist. He loves creating extraordinary blends and prides himself on using Maui-made ingredients.
This is exactly who you want to meet on your spirits tour. (Photo: Jen Birn)
We had the privilege of a personal tour of the facility where we were inundated with alcohol-making stats and facts.
Haliimaile Distillery is best known for its Pau vodka, made from a blend of Maui pineapples and Maui water. They also make a Pau oaked vodka, aged in oak barrels like a whiskey, and a Pau vodka infused with cognac!
The distillery is also home to Sammy Hagar’s Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum. Originally created just for Sammy’s restaurants, the rum is a collaboration between Sammy and Mark. To create it, Maui-grown sugarcane is run through a custom still Mark created that caramelizes the sugar, giving the rum a crème brûlée essence with a hint of vanilla. According to Mark, Sammy regularly visits the facility, where barrels of his rum collect fan signatures as they age.
It doesn’t get more local than this. (Photo: Jen Birn)
Another star at Haliimaile is the Paniolo whiskeys. They take straight bourbon from Kentucky, but then mix it with their own signature pineapple distillate to make it Maui’s own. It comes in three unique flavors: brown sugar (which tastes like drinking spiked French toast!), chocolate coconut, and coffee.
Related: 9 Secret and Awesome Surfing Spots
Last but not least, Haliimaile makes a line of flavored vodkas called Maui Moon that includes the island’s favorite POG flavor, chocolate macadamia nut, and hibiscus.
We couldn’t miss a chance to stop by Maui’s famous Mama’s Fish House restaurant, where the food is so fresh the daily menu has the name of the fisherman who made the catch — that morning!
While we took a break from imbibing in cocktails, the liquid pairing with our fish was a complementary cup of coconut butternut squash soup that was so flavorful it danced in your mouth.
Ocean vodka is readily recognizable by its spherical bottle. It’s shipped to 36 states on the mainland, but the magic happens at Hawaii Sea Spirits Organic Farm and Distillery, a family-owned operation where we walked through fields of sugarcane, the main ingredient in the organic vodka.
It’s hard to miss a bottle of Ocean. When it’s empty, you definitely want to put a message in it. (Photo: Jen Birn)
Kombucha is my biggest weakness, and after sampling the three kinds of kombucha that are made here each day, I may be ruined from bottle brews. In addition to the daily handcrafted kombucha, Maui Kombucha has an assortment of healthy, natural Maui-sourced elixirs like noni. Noni grows on trees in Maui and is said to be a miracle herbal remedy for everything from immunity to digestion to a cough or a headache. I could hardly get past the pungent smell and nearly gagged at a small sip of the “magic herbal remedy,” but somehow my travel companion drank it down without as much as a flinch. If you can stomach it, they say, it’s good for you.
The local noni is more difficult to get down than wheatgrass, but they say it is even better for you. (Photo: Jen Birn)
Ko boasts inventive “garden to glass” cocktails made with herbs and spices grown in an organic garden on the property! I sampled the Honey Basil Fresh with gin, hand-pressed basil, clover honey syrup, and fresh lime juice and loved it despite my general dislike for gin. Next up I sampled the Home Grown, vodka mixed with lavender from Maui, strawberry pepper jam-infused syrup, and lemonade, which packed quite the unexpected punch — in a good way.
Our last day in Maui, we indulged in a buffet breakfast at the Fairmont for some sustenance before taking a short Uber ride to Maui Brewery. I’m personally not much of a beer drinker, but I quickly learned you don’t need to be to find a craft beer here that you’ll love.
Garrett Marrero owns the facility, and during our tour he promised us that his beer “isn’t just yellow fizzy stuff to wash down pizza and pretzels.”
Until we got here, we had no idea craft brewing was even a thing in Hawaii. (Photo: Jen Birn)
During a flight tasting, we began with their most popular export and local brew, the Bikini Blonde. A gold-colored lager, it was light and easy to drink. We soon entered more adventurous territory with the Mana Wheat made with Maui Gold pineapples (juiced at Maui Wine!). It was refreshing, and the hint of pineapple dances on the palette.
Another favorite was Doppelshot Doublebock, a beer made from Maui coffee, which Garrett said is 10 times as expensive to use as a generic coffee but worth it. One can of the java beer has the equivalent of more than half a cup of coffee!
As our multiday drinking tour came to an end, I left with a new appreciation for all of Maui’s natural wonders and truly felt the spirit of Maui through its indigenous spirits. Mahalo.