Hardly run of the mill: Joe Petch & Reyka

When it comes to interesting, there are few vodkas that are as refreshing as Reyka is, at least as a brand and in its manufacture.

The first vodka to be made and bottled in Iceland, Reyka boasts the purity of the water that it uses, as well as being eco-friendly in its production. Iceland’s sole distillery has terroir of an unusual context; in addition to its lava rock filtered water, it harnesses geothermal power to power its premises and its distillation, carried out in the rather peculiar Carter Head Still. In that sense, William Grant & Sons has basically ‘reinvented’ vodka, says Joe Petch, the Global Brand Ambassador for Reyka.

While it is a bit of a stretch to call it a reinvention of the genre, there’s no denying that Reyka in itself is a remarkably innovative brand and product that has cleverly placed emphasis on purity and sustainability – a tone, or a lineage, if you would put it that way, that’s very different from the norm. And if that’s not a good story for the marketing folks, I don’t know what is. Joe was in town some time back, and we quizzed him to find out what makes Reyka tick.

What was the big idea behind Reyka?

I think they started with Reyka when they (William Grant & Sons) found out that the Icelandic water in the area that we make Reyka (a town called Borgarnes – it’s a small village 74 1/2 km from Reykjavik) – from the Grábrók springs – is around 14 times purer than the bottled water that you buy. It’s got no minerals whatsoever which means that the only flavour imparted when you make alcohol is from the base alcohol, which keeps it very pure and clean. When they had this they actually set themselves a mission statement and that was to create a vodka like no other. So it wasn’t really an idea in the head of how it is to be used, they just wanted to make something of unparalleled quality, and very differently.

So what does Reyka do particularly well?

I think it’s the quality of the spirit initially, means that you can mix it with anything because vodka is versatile. So you’ve got, I would say, an almost infinite number of flavour combinations you can use with a vodka. But at the same time, because of the character, the nature, and the flavour of Reyka, you don’t have to mix it at all – so you’re not actually looking to hide the flavour, like you would with some brands. Because of the quality of Reyka you can enjoy it with or without mixing them. We’re reinventing how people are looking at it, and the perceptions of how it’s drunk. So I take many classic cocktails and give them a bit of a shake up and a bit of a twist, and try and think how I’d make them different and unconventional.

Joe Petch Martini Dispenser

Unconventional? Like how?

For example, I wanted to do some sampling at a store called Fortnum & Mason in London, maybe you’re familiar with it? It’s a very high end British department store and I wanted to make sample martinis at this event. So I took a chiller, and I designed a Martini dispensing machine, so that when you press a button, out of the tap comes martinis at 18 degrees celsius. So that’s one idea – one example of how we don’t really change the actual drink itself, but we change the methodology and the way it’s prepared.

Speaking of methodology, why use a Carter Head Still, and why only one?

Well, they’re very expensive, so starting with one is the best way forward. The reason they chose it, is because they’ve been using this style of still to make Hendrick’s since 1999. It’s a very old style of design, invented by the Carter brothers, and that’s why it’s called the Carter Head Still. They were designed in the 1800s originally and these were actually made by Forsyths in Scotland, an old still maker. This is a new still, specifically made to order, custom made for Reyka, but it is of an old design.

It’s a mix between the Coffey still (or the continuous still) and the pot still, so it’s a hybrid between the two. The process of distilling alcohol through the Carter Head Still softened it far more than any other still can even dream of doing. This was a still designed to soften spirits as much as possible, and has the most interaction with copper. They’ve seen how it affected Hendrick’s and how it made the spirit. So they knew that this was the still they wanted to use.

Even if it’s an expensive, labour intensive batch process, they knew that if they wanted to make the purest vodka with the purest water, they had to use a still that created the purest spirit. And that’s why they did it. You can save a lot of money by doing it in different ways, or if you want to make bigger volume, but they wanted to go back to their statement, which was to make a vodka like no other, and make something really special.

What makes this Carter Head Still different from the one used for Hendrick’s Gin?

When this still was originally designed to make gin, this (pointing to the flavour basket) is where you would put your botanicals. So you would put your juniper berries, your lemon and lime peel, or whatever you wanted to use. But we’re not making gin, we’re making vodka. So what they did was quite resourceful. Lava rock is essentially what Iceland is made out of because of the volcanic eruptions. So learning from trial and error and experimentations, they put 200kg of lava rock into the flavour basket. So what happens is when the alcohol evaporates, it travels up through several plates that helps soften the spirit and make it stronger, and then the vapour passes through lava rock as well.

This actually helps soften the spirit and leave behind the harsher, volatile, alcohol and unpleasant flavours, and allows the more pure ones to pass through. The vapour is then is cooled with water, and it recondenses back into a liquid. And at that point it is passed over another 20-25kilos of lava rock in the basket there.

After around 50 to 100 distillations, they’ll throw it back into the lava fields and pick up some more.

I’ve heard that your first distillation is actually done in Scotland, why is that?

Pot stills are not the optimal choice for distilling vodka. Legally, you will need to distill the spirit up to at least 95% alcohol, and it would take many distillations to fulfill the alcohol concentration requirement. Column stills are better at this.

When you’re making a vodka, you want to make the best neutral grain spirit possible – and that’s the spirit that needs to be distilled up to 96% alcohol to be called vodka. Because this is the first distillery ever in Iceland, they haven’t got the means to make a neutral grain spirit. So it’s much the same if you were to produce a gin in Singapore. You’d look for the best juniper and that’d would arguably come from the mediterranean. Because in some countries if you were to use local ingredients, it wouldn’t quite do the job, or they are not available. So, most vodka and gin distillers would actually buy the best neutral grain spirit they can in the world, and then they’ll put it through their own unique type of still. And depending on the unique process; the water, the still, the filtration, and how it’s done – that will give you your finished product.

The water in the original distillate that is sent to Iceland is only 3.4% water, so that amount of water doesn’t really change anything especially when we’re distilling that to around 96%. It’s such a small amount, so it doesn’t matter. When we get to the final process (after distillation and filtering with lava rock), we’re actually adding 60% water almost to bottle it at 40%. The important part, is that the water is used at the end, when you actually bring the spirit strength to the strength it’s served in.

Back those zany inventions of yours. I need to ask, what’s up with the chainsaw?

What’s up with that? I don’t really have an answer. People stopped asking me why I do things a while ago. It’s just a bit of fun really. We wanted to create some classic drinks and the Ramos is notoriously annoying to make behind the bar, simply because you have to shake it so hard and for so long. That’s because of the ingredients. If I’m asked what don’t you mix in a cocktail I’d say don’t mix citrus and dairy, because it curdles – and the Ramos has both of those things, and it has egg white as well. So you need to shake it really hard to create the right texture and a pleasant drink. After shaking a few of these and getting a bit tired, I thought there must be an easier way and I looked online. There were quite a few inventions for shaking drinks but most of them were far too expensive for me to afford to buy, or they need to do something or turn something.

I have a workshop where I kind of build things. I had a chainsaw; I looked at it one day and I turned around to my friends and went, “should we use that?”

They said, “you’re crazy, but yes.”

That’s why we built it. It makes eight perfect Ramos in 25 seconds. It can make up to 10 but it gets quite heavy.

Did you make the martini dispenser in your workshop as well?

Yeah that’s right. I’ve always been interested in hands-on stuff and building things. And you know, they’re not the most complex things? They don’t need to be. They’re just a different take on what can be done with drinks. I don’t believe drinks should always be serious.

I do admire tradition when it comes to drinks and I love the past and the history as well. But I also believe that we’re always evolving and we should look forward to doing things differently for a purpose and not to make things gimmicky – we wouldn’t be doing something for no reason. The reason the chainsaw shaker was made, was so we didn’t have to shake so hard with our hands. The reason we made the martini dispenser was to make it easier for me to talk to people about the brand instead of making drinks at the time, and in an area where there is no bar. So there’s always a reason for what we do.

There’s one (martini dispenser) in my lounge at the moment and I’m looking into making some more for the global teams to use, so fingers crossed we’ll get one into Singapore. I’m sure we’ll tell you if we do.