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Captain Michael Kean, in shirtsleeves and hard hat, is intrepid indeed as he stakes out the icebergs that roll by the eastern coast of Newfoundland. His goal: to harvest water for one of the purest vodkas in the world.
Iceberg Vodka is made using the water from
icebergs that float along the shores of Newfoundland
Photo: Greg Locke/Reuters
Kean toils for Canadian Iceberg Vodka Corp., a small company that has found a niche in the vast world of premium vodka, in which at least 300 brands tempt the suave – or the not-so-suave – tippler.
But Iceberg Vodka has something nobody else has. Sixty percent of its volume is made up of water that comes from the 12,000-year-old ghostly monoliths that break away from the continental ice shelf near Greenland and float along the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland in the spring.
“We’re the only vodka brand in the world that makes our vodka from icebergs,” says David Meyers, president of Iceberg Vodka, which has its head office in Toronto.
It can take a year or two for the icebergs to reach Newfoundland, but the wait is worth it; the 12,000-year-old bergs were formed in the natural northern freezer long before pollutants crept into the world’s waters. Contaminants in iceberg water are infinitesimally small: The ice is 7,000 times purer than tap water, the company says.
And the purer the vodka, the smoother the taste, Meyers says.
The vodka is produced and bottled in St. John’s. Kean sails out from Port Union, Nfld., in a 260-foot iceberg harvester, which has room for a full-size backhoe with a menacing claw, a grinder and six large tanks to hold the ice.
It’s a dangerous and expensive process to slip up beside an iceberg that could weigh 500 million tonnes. Kean says he uses his “sixth sense” to determine whether an iceberg will tip over. “You don’t want to be near them when they flip,” Meyers says.
Even with this unusual harvest, Iceberg Vodka is priced competitively, costing about $25 for a 750-millilitre bottle. By comparison, Grey Goose can be had for $48.95 (spring water filtered through limestone), while Smirnoff, the best-selling vodka in North America, costs $25.95.
Iceberg earned high praise soon after it began to produce ultra premium vodka in 1995. It finished second at the 1998 World Spirits Championship in Chicago, behind only Grey Goose. In 2004, a panel from the New York chapter of the Tasters Guild International picked Iceberg as the best premium vodka during a blind taste test, placing it ahead of Ciroc and Grey Goose, both of France, and Ketel One of the Netherlands.
All this has helped the company muscle its way into the martini glasses of the world, in such countries as the United States, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, China, Taiwan, Israel, South Africa and Iceland.
Last year, Iceberg ranked ninth in Canada in sales, which rose almost 10% by volume to more than 250,000 cases, all without the benefit of advertising. Smirnoff, owned by British multinational Diageo PLC, sold 25.8 million last year worldwide.
“We have to be much quicker on our feet, much more entrepreneurial in the way we drive our business,” Meyers says. Typically, Iceberg uses word of mouth, social media, bar promotions and event sponsorships.
Because of Iceberg’s small size – it has five full-time employees – Meyers decided to pick his spots for expansion. Russian and Eastern European vodkas are quite different from Canadian vodka. Russian vodkas tend to be wheat based, while Polish vodkas are often potato based. Iceberg’s alcohol is made from sweet corn from Ontario and Michigan.
“A Russian or Polish consumer would gravitate to their style of vodka. Also, vodkas there are extremely cheap,” Meyers says.
Iceberg is being sold in European and other countries aided by distributors with which the company has forged relations. But for now, the United States is the company’s main target. It’s the land of milk and honey for a vodka distributor – in 2011, 4.8 million cases of vodka were sold in Canada; in the United States, the number was 62 million.
Iceberg does business mainly in the eastern states, partly because of proximity to its bases, partly because it has to master a complex triple-tier structure of liquor sales. An importer must abide by national regulations but then find a distributor for each state, and then for restaurants or bars. Trying to launch everywhere in the United States at once would be overwhelming, Meyers says.
Its No. 1 U.S. market is Florida, but it has also circled Georgia, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Michigan as key states for the future. Meyers is also talking to a distributor in Colorado, which could prove to be their gateway to the West.
In February, Iceberg will launch a new line of flavoured vodkas, including chocolate mint, crème brûlée and cucumber. They will have lots of competition. More than 150 new vodka flavours have been introduced over the past year. Some now have larger sales volumes than their original unflavoured bases.
None of that will stop Iceberg. There appears to be no signs of softness in vodka’s growth in the United States.