People Risk Their Lives to Make This Shockingly Affordable Vodka From Icebergs
Captain Ed Kean motors his 1968-vintage fishing boat toward one of the biggest chunks of floating ice I've ever seen. "Dead man walking, that iceberg," he says. "This time next week, he'll be gone. He's melted a lot since yesterday. The sea is still warming up, and once you go from two to five degrees…"
The burly old ice harvester regards the block in front of us, white and streaked with turquoise, with all the excitement of a farmer walking down a row of sprouting beans. From where I stand, though, this mammoth Arctic slab is one formidable sonovabitch, a first-draft chainsaw ice sculpture of a McMansion dropped into the ocean. Photos of icebergs on sunny days make them out to be pristine porcelain formations. Up close, under dim skies, they're gnarly, gritty, a deep blue marbled with arthritic cracks of the black grit they scraped out of Greenland. The melting, tilting, discolored face lets you see whatever you want in the side, cloud-like: crosses, faces, maps. You could get tipsy just staring at it. Which is fitting: Soon enough, the ice in front of us will be vodka -- one so surprisingly cheap in American liquor stores that it's a wonder these guys can even afford to pull this stunt each year.
Today, Ed's only taking out guests; the barge where he stores ice is nearly full, and his season will soon be over. When he is harvesting chunks, he and his crew will use a mechanical arm to wrench off a cubic meter at a bite, more than a ton of frozen water. Ed's a pro, but for anyone to cruise up to an iceberg, let alone yank off chunks of it, is imprudently dangerous. "They're nine times bigger underwater than on top," the captain will tell you. "There are legs that grow out beneath the belt. If they roll, one of those swords can puncture your hull." Unpredictable, silently dynamic, and perhaps millions of tons: Icebergs do not play. Just ask the Titanic.
Yet over a summer in the pocks and bays around Newfoundland, Canada, Ed will wrench off a bite of 'berg a couple of thousand times. His crew loads a tanker with more than 8,000 gallons of icy water, and trucks it to a distillery and bottler in the province's capital, St. John's. He said he's repeated this process 400 times in six years for Rock Spirits, the company that sources water in this ungainly fashion to produce its iceberg vodka -- named, what else, Iceberg Vodka.
It's an extravagant process to arrive in your vodka tonic, which you're probably just going to make taste like a lime wedge anyway. As a neutral spirit, vodka, more than any other drink, relies on narrative to sell it: which country it's from, how many times it was distilled, creation tales of all sorts. As origin stories go, the hunt and capture of doomed Arctic ice feels like a pretty good one. But in a country absolutely abounding with perfectly good water, trawling out to sea to kill virginal ice has to count as a quixotic mission. As Ed motored us around this craggy land, considering the connection between melting glaciers and Bloody Marys and Caesars, I kept wondering whether the raw adventurism could pay off in the final drink.
You might blithely describe Newfoundlanders as quaint, until you see they've managed to etch out a civilization on the face of a granite shiv in the North Atlantic. The island is so far east it has its own half-hour time zone apart from the rest of the continent. A direct flight from Dublin takes only 4.5 hours, though in temperament, aesthetic, musicality, and accent, you'd swear Newfoundlanders were next-door neighbors to the Irish, not mere descendants. The first radio signal to cross the Atlantic arrived here from Ireland, to a turret on Signal Hill, a low mountain that stares out over the blue, at the tip-end of North America's nose.
The iceberg-spotting field trip started with a nearly three-hour drive across a landscape of gray rocks and scrub trees under a cobweb sky. One of the fellow passengers was Dan Meades, a St. John's resident I've known long enough to appear in his wedding, and a festive sort across any occasion. "I don't want to alarm you," he said, as he handed me a cup of gin and his own artisanal tonic. "This is a stiff drink. That's 4oz there."
From the front seat came the voice of our driver, Alan Collingwood, the third-generation proprietor of Collingwood Spirits and Wines, which markets Iceberg liquors: "I see nothing."
Newfoundland, their Montana-sized home island, is uniquely situated to catch the remains of icebergs that snap off the glaciers Greenland is forever sloughing. By the time they get here, the zillion-ton ice cubes have all but bled back into the ocean. Iceberg to ocean water, ocean water to storm cloud, storm cloud to blizzard, millennia of snow-weight compression and imperceptible slide to the western edge of Greenland. Then ker-splash, an alp of ice shears off, bids farewell to Qasigiannguit and Ikerasaarsuk, and begins a three-or-so-year journey along the deep-cragged coast of Canada en route to iceberg alley.
Once an iceberg has come as far south as Newfoundland, it'll split one of two ways. It can round the top of the island and head along the west side, through a strait where mainland Canada and Newfoundland pinch off the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Or the 'berg can bob along the eastern side of the island, perhaps into the north-facing edge of the island's middle: beside towns like Twillingate or Joe Batt's Arm. Another few miles down along the coast, and it's en route to St. John's. People there mark iceberg season by their annual return, usually in the springtime. The ice drifts like ghostly cruise ships along the Canadian coast before swerving out to the Atlantic, where the Gulf Stream puts the blow dryer to them. Pismo Beach gets monarch butterflies. The Finger Lakes get geese. St. John's sets its calendar by the migration of colossal chunks of Arctic ice.
The open ocean just beyond the harbor is where I'd imagined we'd be intercepting icebergs. Instead, we packed up and boated two hours north, along the backside of Random Island, until we were standing at a cove under a drizzly mist-fog aboard the boat of Captain Ed, who may literally have the most unique job on the planet. He's the guy -- the guy -- who for the past 30 years has won his living by leading a small crew to corral icebergs around Newfoundland. When we boarded, Ed fired up the engines, and a low, plastic-rattling hum took over the cabin.
"OK, we're right here now, in Land's Cove," Ed said, indicating on a map. "And the iceberg's up here. A place called Gin Cove."
"Go figure," Dan said.
The world lately has been fascinated by Ed's job. Documentary crews from France, Australia, and Japan have shadowed him. The Aussies apparently are making a series out of it -- "I said to the guys from Australia, how are you going to do 10 shows of us harvesting icebergs?" Ed said on the water, genuinely curious -- while the Japanese insisted he play the reality-show role of enthusiastic Ahab hunting icebergs he must refer to on camera as "treasures." The Japanese are the reason he still has dozens of .243 Winchester Super Short Magnum rounds aboard. It used to be that the preferred method of harvesting icebergs was capping them, to splinter off safe, manageable chunks that could then be scooped up from the water. "Oh, we shot boxes," Ed said. "We just do it for the movies, right?"
We chugged out into the bay and talked water: its taste, its provenance, its relative value when you rip it off of floating ice mountains instead of get it from your tap. Dan said his first taste of iceberg melt made him a believer. "The townie water, which I would've told you didn't have a smell, after I smelled the iceberg water, smelled like pennies," he said. "This has been frozen for, minimum, 10,000 years. Anything that is in the air currently that us buffoons as humans have made…
"… before the Industrial Revolution, is what I like to say," Ed said, picking up the thought. "We have had emails from someone in the States that said, 'If you keep harvesting icebergs, you're going to unlock some kind of disease that's in the iceberg and might kill everybody.' I said, 'Well, if we do that, there's probably another iceberg with the antidote in there. I'll sell that to you and make another fortune.'"
It's one thing to joke; it's another to actually tamper with slick, floating mountains in their death throes. I'd heard a version of this anecdote where Dan and a buddy kayaked out to visit icebergs, but on Ed's boat, he retold it for the cabin: "Cunningham and I were out on boats one day, we thought, 'Ah, sure, our brains aren't fully developed, we can do whatever we want.' You paddle right up onto the 'berg and get out. And hang around." The flat surface of the big ice held huge quantities of standing meltwater, and they Canadianly swam in a clear, gelid pool. "I was 19, I thought this was the coolest thing ever. Instantly, upon learning a single thing about icebergs, you realize you couldn't possibly have been more stupid."
Ed replied: "We hit one the other day, took one scoop, and left. Sure enough, as soon as we left, pchew. You'll hear it. They'll tell ya. They'll grunt and groan." The term for an iceberg tantrum is a "roll," a gentle verb for the violent shearing and shifting of its famously imbalanced weight, perhaps splitting, perhaps killing people. Ed declined to participate in a Red Bull stunt a few years back that he thought too foolhardy: towing a wakeboarder behind a Jet Ski so that the boarder could ramp up and along the side of icebergs. "They wanted us to get involved," he said, "and it was just too silly to do what they wanted done."
That's the difference here between a local and the ogling out-of-towners -- "come from aways," in the local parlance. The visitor sees a beautiful novelty. A local like Ed recalls the fishing trawler that collided with an iceberg and limped back to port with a hundred tons of smashed ice on its deck. A thousand close calls and tragedies between. In 2003, to pick just one, a group who went out to scoop up ice tried to chip an iceberg using an axe. It cracked and dumped them into the frigid ocean. A boy survived atop an ice floe, and a man clung to it as well, while another man swam and then ran for help -- a rowboat, eventually. The boy was fine, as was the swimmer who went for help. But the man who spent two hours bobbing against a chunk of ice in the North Atlantic was never revived.
Before I met Alan Collingwood, I hadn't given much thought to the vodka market in a while. Neither have you, I'm guessing, based on vodka's stagnating sales over the past few years. Liquor in the United States has followed beer, to large extent, in that people have been switching to drinks that have flavor -- whiskey has overtaken vodka as the top-selling liquor and keeps extending its lead -- and the vodkas people are buying, increasingly, are smaller-batch. Enormous Russian and Northern European brands still drive the industry: Smirnoff, Absolut, some Ukrainian and Polish labels you couldn't pronounce given three tries. But smaller distilleries in America have gone from insurgents to the new establishment. Tito's, from Texas, and New Amsterdam, out of California, were bit players in the early 2010s -- yet together outsold Absolut in 2014. Most of the rest of the category seems driven by a scatterplot of flavor infusions and garish/elegant bottles. Packaging takes on all the more significance when literally every version of a product is fully transparent.
Over vodka tonics at a bar on St. John's main drag, Water St, Alan explained how Iceberg Vodka made its own rise as a local, artisanal brand. He showed me an old Grey Goose magazine ad that listed the results of a 40-vodka taste-test in 1998 by the Beverage Testing Institute of Chicago: Grey Goose won, with 96 points. In second, with 94: Iceberg, right above Stoli Gold. Still, the rise was slow from the fifth-best-selling vodka in the province to the top spot. Now it's firmly a local darling, but sold at a price point -- less than $30 a bottle -- that will keep it from getting into the premium category to help offset the exorbitant cost of the water.
"We think we're probably the most expensively produced vodka in the world," Alan said. Just consider the boat, he noted. The crew, the barge, the maintenance, the insurance, the licensing, the unions. "You're talking seven figures before you even get an alcohol."
When I told him I was able to buy a 1.75-liter bottle of Iceberg at a New York City liquor store for $22 -- roughly a third of what the same quantity of Grey Goose costs -- we launched into an impromptu brainstorming session on how a variation on Iceberg could skew more premium. Maybe you get the center of the iceberg, a hard-to-reach core called the "diamond," and melt that sucker down separately. Maybe you just distill it more times; Iceberg now distills it three times, while other brands boast figures into the dozens. "At a certain point you're removing flavor properties," Alan said. "But it's a sales tactic." They tried adding flavors, but ultimately that's not the greatest fit when you're banking on having something that's allegedly the most pristine possible version of itself.
"No matter what water you find or create, there is no purer water on the planet," Alan said. "I've explained how we harvest icebergs and had buyers tell me, 'That's bullshit.' But you can't put an iceberg on the bottle and say you harvest icebergs and not do it." The cap says it, drolly: Made with icebergs. There's a glassy taste of the doomed Arctic there with your cranberry juice.
Around the mid-'90s, in the early, tiny-batch days of the vodka, they'd truck solid ice chunks into St. John's and melt it with the help of an industrial hotel kitchen. Today, they truck it from Ed's barge to a bottler in St. John's, where it goes into a 30,000-liter tank outside the bottling company, the sort of dull, dark-brick building that attracts so little attention along the highway that you don't even bother to realize that you have no idea what goes on in there.
Inside, on the day I visited, men were stacking up the crystal human skull bottles of (native Canadian) Dan Aykroyd's Crystal Head Vodka in an otherwise typical warehouse. An operations manager named Tarah Mowry walked me through the stages from tank to bottle. Once it's fully melted, the iceberg water undergoes a coarse filtration to remove sediment. Then it gets a dose of neutral grain spirits made from a varietal of corn called Peaches & Cream, imported from Ontario, to make it 40% alcohol by volume. After, it gets a dose of powder-activated carbon to remove odors, impurities, and taste. The main enemy at this stage, so fresh from the ocean, is dissolved salt. Unlike just about every sip of water you take from a public water supply, it never touches chlorine, and because of its vintage, its never met pesticide runoff or car exhaust.
"People will pay a lot to drink iceberg water," Tarah said. "But Newfoundlanders won't pay a lot for it. You can go get your own bits off the shore if you want to."
We ran impromptu test with the spectrometer and a couple of water samples. In the first: the iceberg water. In the second: St. John's tap water. Canadian water standards allow the amount of non-H2O in the water to be up to 500 parts per million. The local tap water sometimes shows readings as high as 200; this particular day, the amount of trace metals, a dash of manganese, and a soupcon of sodium chloride, showed an admirably minuscule 66 parts per million, straight from the tap. Then we tested some iceberg water that had been hanging out in the fridge. The reading came back at 8.56 parts per million. That ain't zero, but it's Swiss-notary-in-beige-khakis neutral.
Here's why you can make what you believe is a super-premium water-based product, with water costs thousands of times what you need to lay out, and not be able to mark it up when you start as a local brand: because you're beginning in Newfoundland, where icebergs are pedestrian, cute, and a tourist attraction. Like puffins, they're a veritable local mascot. They grace T-shirts and tea towels and postcards and lame art sold in tchotchke shops. Chunks that wash up on shore -- "bergy bits," per the local lexicon -- wind up in people's freezers, where they're pulled out, hammered apart, and dropped into drinks for the satisfying fizz that comes when the bubbles trapped by ancient snowfall hit your whiskey and pop like a natural carbonation.
Then I found a professor at Memorial University, the big research institution in town, who added another iceberg descriptor to the list. "For us," Bruce Colbourne said, "they're mostly a bloody nuisance."
I talked with Colbourne in his office, where one window looked out on the forested hills north of town and the opposite wall held a chalkboard where a crude sketch of an iceberg was swarmed by kinematics. His research in the school's Department of Ocean & Naval Architectural Engineering involves trying to measure and predict the force that icebergs have on the open ocean, to better design boats and offshore oil rigs. The need to buttress Exxon's Hibernia platform against icebergs added a billion dollars to its cost, Colbourne said -- a cost that ultimately discourages all but the most promising drill operations in the path of icebergs, which are thereby doing their best to thwart climate change. Oil companies do what they call ice management, the professor said. "The structures are built, supposedly, to be hit by a million tons," he continued. "But no one really wants to try to see if it works."
The boats that try to tow icebergs to guard those rigs have no real control of the ice; best they can do is shove and try to divert the mountain of ice a smidge, a degree. Even an 8,000-ton boat struggles against the inertia of a smallish, 20,000-ton 'berg. The futility makes the more far-out attempts to harvest iceberg water, a fascination around the world, all the more absurd. "Years ago, when I first started out, there were proposals -- this is really wild -- to tow icebergs to Saudi Arabia as a form of fresh water," the professor said. "Which is insane, actually. What amazed me most about these things is how much life they had as an idea."
Outside on the deck of Ed's boat, I got my first taste of iceberg, lower-case, by reaching into a plastic barrel where stray ice bits were slowly melting in the falling rainwater. I pulled out a chunk to nibble on, like a Popsicle. If there was going to be magic here, I thought, this would be as close as I'd get to ingesting the Arctic today.
The flavor was wet and cold, with a hint of frozen and an aftertaste of very damp. This, it turns out, is the great promise of iceberg melt and, ultimately, of the vodka you make from it. The water is so mirror-like, so vacant, so chemically blank, that it may well reset your palate. No water you taste again feels so much like starting at zero. I saw it all. I tasted nothing.
Later, back on land, back in the States and in dry clothes, I found myself at a dinner event with a Canadian theme. There, I met a bartender by the name of Nader Chabaane, a Tunisian-born, Paris-raised mixologist who works now at the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, in Quebec City. After he gave me a sample nip of an artisanal Quebecois gin and built me a Negroni using gin sourced in part from botanicals from the Canadian far-north territory of Nunavut, I realized, this was my man to render an Iceberg Vodka ruling: Can you really taste the void?
As luck would have it, I had a bottle on hand. I explained to him the liquor's story -- 10,000-year-old snowfall, a two-year ocean voyage, bagged and tagged by a guy named Ed with a barge -- and invited him to help me describe the drink.
Nader, an intense, lean fellow with a shaved head and fleur-de-lis cufflinks poking out from under his black suit jacket, happens to be an inveterate vodka expert. At his bars, he puts new hires through a test: He pours a blind flight of 10 vodkas and asks the staff, working only from taste and smell, to rank them from the most expensive to the least. Consistently, he said, Grey Goose finishes 10th; the best, consistently, is Belvedere. Separately he'll pour three vodkas and insist staff name the three brands specifically. He estimated he's done this test 2,000 times, and on only three occasions could people nail the brands. "And those were bartenders who would say, 'Oh, yes, that's Belvedere -- I drink that every day,’" he said. When I asked what he likes to pour, he said it depends on the viscosity he wants in a drink. So this was my taster.
I poured him a tall shot. He raised it to his nose, swirled, inhaled. He took a tiny sip, holding it at the front of his tongue, head tilted down. I heard him draw in air ever so delicately, making a birdlike whistling noise through the liquid. He swallowed. Then repeat: sip, inhale, swallow. He held his thought for a moment. "Well," he began. "It's a vodka."