Every now and again a spirit ahead of its time appears and helps define what the category will become. Reyka Vodka is one of those spirits. Here’s its story.
Iceland isn’t exactly the first place that would come to mind if you were asked to name great vodka-producing countries. You couldn’t even legally sell beer there until 1989. And the country isn’t exactly teeming with distilleries now. But it is home to one brand that has had an enormous impact on the vodka category.
William Grant & Sons first launched Reyka Vodka in 2005 as the ‘world’s first green vodka’. The name is derived from the Icelandic word for ‘smoke’, and the spirit makers chose to base its identity on Iceland’s unique culture and geography while emphasising purity, sustainability, and craft.
It has since been at the centre of an era of evolution for vodka. Gone are the days when people simply demanded a smooth spirit to mix and a fancy bottle. Story, taste, and responsible production have become the cornerstone for many new brands. So how did William Grant & Sons get ahead of the curve?
An unlikely home for success
Caitlin Robertshawe, brand manager for Hendrick’s & Reyka at William Grant & Sons, says that the inspiration to make Icelandic vodka came from one of the Grant family members who used to holiday regularly in the country. “They loved going to Iceland due to its rugged and pure landscape full of volcanoes, waterfalls, and glaciers,” she explains. “It wasn’t a huge stretch to realise that an island famed for its pure glacial water and clean air made perfect sense to make a clean and pure vodka”.
Where the family-owned spirit makers decided to create its signature vodka was Borgarnes. You know Borganes, right? It’s a tiny fishing village around 75km north of Reykjavik with a population of around 2000 people. Yep, that Borganes. The air here is so clean that Co2 levels are actually falling. It’s also said to have the highest population of elves in Iceland, with an elf village supposedly located about 100 yards from the distillery with an elf church, school and, of course, houses. Yes, that information made the edit.
The village is so small that master distiller is Þórður Sigurðsson (Thordur Sigurdsson) is also the local fireman and policeman. He’s not just an entertaining character though. Sigurdsson is a methodical spirit maker who takes great care in his process and has worked with the brand from the start, becoming master distiller in 2012.
“Thordur often makes a joke (we think) that his nose is insured for millions,” Robertshawe says. “In a lot of countries, the spirit safe must remain locked by law. However, in Iceland, this is not the case and Thordur keeps the spirit safe open throughout distillation as he uses his nose to first determine when the spirit changes from heads to hearts to tails. His grandparents lived on the farm close to where the distillery site is now, so he’s familiar with the water and lava fields. Thordur actually hand selects the lava rock used for filtration which needs to be changed every few months”.
Truly craft vodka
The vodka is made from barley grain spirit, which, unfortunately, isn’t sourced locally. Reyka’s hands are tied there due to Iceland’s volatile weather, which means only sturdier forms of wheat/barley grow well, which don’t have quite the right starch content to make vodka. But Robertshawe says there are some exciting changes coming in the near future which will certainly address the environmental cost – and then some.
Once this spirit arrives it is distilled once for six hours in one of the few Carter-Head stills in the world (there are also two at Hendrick’s Gin), specially designed by Forsyths. Carter-Head stills specialise in purifying spirits through an efficient separation of the different weights of alcohol molecules. In the tall copper column, a series of plates encourage reflux (repeated condensation and evaporation) which in turn allows only the lightest molecules through first before the medium weight (pure ethanol) and then the heavier stuff to follow last. This helps to make an incredibly accurate cut of the ‘heart’, which is what gives us Reyka its characteristic vanilla flavour.
As Robertshawe touched on before, the brand uses the delightfully Icelandic method of filtering its vodka through lava rocks. Sigurdsson loads them into a basket at the top of the still that would hold botanicals if Reyka made gin. The distilled vapours pass through this as they are being condensed into a liquid. Lava rocks have a coarse structure that acts as such an effective natural filter they’re often used in ponds and aquariums. The water for dilution, meanwhile, is drawn from a glacial spring that runs through a 4,000-year-old lava field, making it so pure it forgoes the need for treatment or demineralisation before it is blended with the vodka.
Ahead of the trend
The distillery is heated in a unique and sustainable way, with energy from geothermal heat and hydroelectricity (derived from 10% of the country’s 10,000+ waterfalls). It’s quite a sight. Great clouds of steam emerge from the springs thanks to the countries numerous underground volcanoes, creating enough heat o boil an egg in around four minutes. The bottle, meanwhile, is made with 85% recycled glass.
The distillery’s efforts to be green has always been front and centre of its branding. But this has truly been part of the process since 2005, long before it became necessary for brands to boast environmental credentials. This suggests the distillery isn’t interested in greenwashing or hopping on recent trends. In fact, Iceland as a country has always been forward-thinking in this regard. “Around 90% of homes and industries in Iceland use renewable energy. Why? Because it’s everywhere and super accessible,” says Robertshawe.
Reyka’s also unique in that, despite being a decidedly modern brand, it has never embraced the world of flavoured vodka. In its home country, an advertising campaign states ‘In Iceland, the only flavoured vodka we make is vodka-flavoured vodka’. Robertshawe explains that, while you should never say never, one is unlikely to come because William Grant & Sons believes in growing brands for the future and that means thinking long term. The flavoured vodka category may be growing fast, but for Reyka the focus is on unlocking the potential of the core brand.
It’s not surprising Reyka is so confident given the quality of its spirit. Across 92 reviews on our site, the vodka averages 5 stars. It might be filtered and have a smooth, elegant texture, but this isn’t completely neutral vodka. It tastes of something. Pepper. Citrus. And a trademark creamy, sweet vanilla element. In an era (the noughties) when the cleaner the vodka, the better, Reyka managed to still appeal to those who enjoyed the purity of that modern style while creating something with personality, reminiscent of the old styles that hailed from the vodka belt of Russia and Poland. And it just so happens the latter is on the comeback.
Making a characterful, sustainable spirit with a story was not what was in demand in 2005. But as the vodka category evolves, Reyka continues to thrive because it has all of those things. In fact, looking at the direction vodka is going in, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Reyka vodka helped change the spirit. Who knew a Scotch whisky maker creating a brand in a tiny fishing village in Iceland would make such a difference?
You can purchase Reyka Vodka by clicking this link right here.