LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - This is the story of a Louisville resident who, in a city filled with bourbon, is making it big in the vodka business and in of all places - Hawaii.
Donald Freytag was the second employee of HAWAI'I SEA SPIRITS, which produces the OCEAN brand Vodka that you might find on the shelf in a blue glass shaped as a traditional glass float.
Freytag joined the company in 2009 after having worked for 15 years with Brown-Forman in Louisville in a variety of roles including sales, marketing and general management. He has helped grow OCEAN to its current distribution level. It will be in all 50 states by early 2018 and Canada.
He also made sure to bring some of Louisville into the distilling process. The distillery equipment was made by Vendome Copper, a family business in Louisville.
Freytag and his wife have strong Louisville roots, so they decided to stay in WAVE Country and raise their children. He does get to Maui once or twice a year.
Not a bad place to go for business.
Here are my five questions with Donald Freytag of HAWAI'I SEA SPIRITS:
1) How did you get involved with OCEAN Organic Vodka?
My business partner Shay Smith founded the company with his parents in 2005 when he was 27-years-old. I was employee #2 in 2009. At the time, we were a tiny, Maui-centric business. I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit and saw great potential in the OCEAN brand, but perhaps most importantly, I loved the people. I knew we had at least a 50/50 chance of failure, but I took the plunge anyway as I knew it would be fun and gratifying, regardless of the outcome.
To me, there is nothing more rewarding than working for yourself, building something from nothing. We are now more than 10x larger than when I started, and growing the business +70% in 2017 vs. a record 2016. With a new rum brand in the pipeline for initial test in Hawai'i (named KULA) and other new products on the way, we are truly just beginning.
2) Why Hawaii?
Founder and CEO Shay Smith was born on Maui - his parents eloped there from Palm Springs, California in the early 1970s. The family is incredibly entrepreneurial and hard-working. Originally in custom home building (self taught), they decided to start a spirits business in 2005 to develop and launch a new ultra-premium vodka. And they all like to drink vodka, so why not?!
3) How was the brand developed?
Shay came up with the original idea of creating a vodka brand around the ocean, using desalinated deep ocean mineral water sourced from 3,000 feet deep off Kona, and trademarked the OCEAN brand name for all spirits in 2006. OCEAN is the only brand in the world made with deep ocean mineral water - hence our name. Our use of organic sugar cane is also highly unique and differentiating in vodka, as most vodka is made from grain, potato or corn. We find organic sugar cane makes a very pleasing neutral spirit when refined through our proprietary distillation process. Our organic sugar cane spirit comes off the still at 193-196 proof, almost pure alcohol, so it is super clean before we cut it to 80 proof to make OCEAN Organic Vodka.
After a few early years in downtown Kahului, we built a new state of the art distillery on our 80-acre organic sugar cane farm, Upcountry Maui in Kula, Hawai'i. Our farm and distillery is sited 1,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, with panoramic views of the North and South Shores and West Maui Mountains. The backd rop of our farm is a 10,000 foot dormant volcano Haleakala ("House of the Rising Sun").
4) I notice that you offer tours of your facility. How important do you feel that is today to marketing your brand?
We have had over 200,000 visitors through our distillery in the past 5 years, and HAWAI'I SEA SPIRITS is one of the highest rated Maui attractions on TripAdvisor.
Today's consumers care deeply about authenticity across all product and service categories. I often say, "The Whole Foods Consumer has gone mainstream." People want to know the backstory of brands these days: Who made it? Why? How? Where? From what? What does the brand do to make the earth a better place? This is why having an original home place is critical for brands of today. It is all about authenticity.
At Hawai'i Sea Spirits, we farm organically, operate with solar power, use deep ocean water as our water source and give back annually to oceanic causes, all of which is very compelling to today's consumer. We are truly "farm to bottle," as everything we do is rooted to our organic farm and distillery: working the farm, harvesting and juicing the cane, fermentation, distillation, blending and bottling. Our brand story of OCEAN is true authenticity.
5) What is your favorite OCEAN drink?
My favorite OCEAN drink depends on the season. In the spring and summer, I love OCEAN on the rocks with a squeeze of citrus or a splash of fresh organic juice, especially grapefruit or orange. The minerals in our vodka from the deep ocean water (calcium, magnesium, potassium) enhance flavors when mixed, much like adding seasoning to food. During fall, OCEAN tastes great with fresh hot apple cider and a cinnamon stick. In the winter, I am partial to the OCEAN Bleu Martini, which is straight OCEAN Organic Vodka poured over ice, shaken and served "Up" in a martini glass, garnished with three fresh hand-stuffed bleu cheese olives. It is delicious!