The Everything of Nothing

Why perfect vodka requires an obsessive spirit


Obsession is the nightmarish heart of craft, isn’t it? The willful rejection of a known path of least resistance can’t be the act of an entirely sane man: there is frankly too much common, too much easy, too much cheap to be had. We call it obsession when the effort greatly outsizes the evident reward. But for the obsessive, the reward, the object of their labor, is both entirely worth it in its own right and forever elusive.

Art is an act of inspiration, an expression; craft is an endless exercise. Kristmar Olaffson, the master distiller of Iceland’s Reyka Vodka, would, I think, certainly agree.
I hate it when people say vodka tastes like nothing. Vodka is elemental, axiomatic: it tastes like itself. The better it is, the more it does. And Reyka tastes exactly like vodka, rounding the messy violence of alcohol to a perfect polish, like a river pebble. This is intentional. Purity is Olaffson’s obsession, and it’s apparently quite a lot of work.

Reyka is distilled effectively at the source, a demineralized spring situated in a 4,000 year-old lava field 65 miles or so from Reykjavik. The water is mythically pure. A bottle of Evian has some 15 times the content of dissolved solids as the stuff that’s coming out of the ground there. As a natural environment, it’s hard to top Iceland for sheer awesomeness. It makes sense then, that Reyka’s operation is one of the greenest in the world, self-sustaining and geo-thermally powered.

But a dedication to the natural is only half Olaffson’s story. Reyka is hand-crafted in small batches, and is the only vodka in the world distilled in the fabled Carter-Head still. During Olaffson’s seven-hour manual distillation process, the spirit will re-encounter local igneous rock twice: initially as an aromatic, and ultimately as natural filter. If there’s any single flavor worth noting in a glass of Reyka, this is where it enters the frame: a clean, perfect stoniness -- museum granite.

But it is, actually, the purity that hits you. Reyka is just surpassingly drinkable -- tamed and lush and soft. Serve it perfectly cold and it’ll make you long for better glassware, organic dish soap, perfect glacial ice, global smoking bans and an electric car for the ride home. All this is a testament to the success of the effort, the way Olaffson wraps you up in his obsession: he makes the effort seem not so outsized, the reward seem so much less esoteric.

Chris Koch is a spirits journalist based in St. Louis, where he writes about scotch, whisky, and anything that's ever been bottled or bartended.

Mentioned in this article


  • If you're looking for the perfect vodka, come to Atlantic Canada. Ironworks Distillery in Lunenburg and Prince Edward Distillery in Prince Edward Island make award winning vodkas to get on your list.

    Dec 11, 2010 at 11:27 AM

  • This vodka sounds like the one that came out on the market in the 80's. Icy Vodka? Great Vodka!

    Dec 11, 2010 at 1:19 PM

  • Snooth User: TomBoy
    90207 46

    The best vodka is Crater Lake Vodka from Bendistillery in Bend, Oregon! It is 80 proof and filtered 10 times through charcoal and crushed volcanic rock and aged slightly in new oak. It's very smooth. It's my vodka of choice especially for martinis.

    Dec 11, 2010 at 3:46 PM

  • Snooth User: RBerg428
    284209 1

    Another excellent vodka is Cold River from Maine. It is made from potatoes in small batches.

    Dec 11, 2010 at 5:12 PM

  • Snooth User: Chris Koch
    672979 10

    Thanks all for the recommendations. This is my favorite thing about craft spirits: I haven't tried any of these, but I'm already intrigued by the possible narratives. There are very few things made from potatoes and very few things hailing from Maine that I would ever turn down, the people of Oregon seem to have exceptional talent at making things with their hands, and I have to believe that Atlantic Canada is serious about its vodka. I'll try to hunt all three down inland.

    Dec 11, 2010 at 6:57 PM

  • Snooth User: MykePagan
    166600 3

    Did a blind tasting on two different occasions with a half dozen friends, some vodka drinkers, some not. Tested all the usual suspects (Ketel One, Gray Goose, Absolut, Stolichnaya, and Three Olives). Both times, hands down the test went to Three Olives. That shocked the vodka snobs. Test was pure vodka, no ice at room temperature in a tumbler. Later another test was done where I didn't participate and Imperia vodka was added in place of Absolut. My friends claim Imperia tied with Three Olives in that one.

    Dec 11, 2010 at 7:29 PM

  • Check out "Hangar One" Vodka. These are produced in Oakland California. The Mandarin Blossom is beautiful, hand crafted using Mandarin Orange Blossoms. There are also others, natural, Kaffir Lime, Budda Hand Lemon and some special distillations. They have a website, you can goggle Hangar One.

    Dec 11, 2010 at 11:12 PM

  • Snooth User: gwblas
    135612 4

    Texas has the very best of everything and fine vodka is no exception. Texas has two of the best vodkas made, Titos and Dripping Springs. Either of which will stand toe to toe with any vodka made and give it a Texas Style Thrashing (and at a price that is reasonable)

    Dec 12, 2010 at 9:23 AM

  • Snooth User: Chris Koch
    672979 10

    Tito's is definitely a favorite. I've been looking forward to trying Dripping Springs. There are Texans making hill country bourbon, gwblas... have you tried any?

    Dec 12, 2010 at 6:07 PM

  • Snooth User: BranfordWine
    Hand of Snooth
    507958 19

    Cold River from Maine is delicious!!! (and of course, their blueberry vodka is just perfect!!)

    Dec 30, 2010 at 11:32 AM

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