C aptain 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.
Y ou 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.
B efore 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.
O utside 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.