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.