If there was ever a man who could be accurately described as a “jack of all trades,” it’s Dan Aykroyd. The writer, comedian, actor, director, singer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist has experienced many a successful fork in his long career path, constantly reinventing himself in numerous capacities. Fans of early Saturday Night Live know him best as one of the original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players”; millennials remember him fondly from Ghostbusters; cinephiles of all ages will remember him as one of those iconic Blues Brothers.
Lovers of fine wines and artisanal spirits, however, will be well acquainted with Aykroyd’s name in another way. We recently spoke with the Canadian star about his early forays into the world of winemaking, as well as his latest venture: a uniquely packaged, unusually distilled vodka manufactured in Newfoundland, Canada.
You’ve been an acclaimed lover of fine wines for some time now; you were a minority owner of several wineries in Canada’s Niagara region, and you first began working with wine agency Diamond Estates to bring Patrón Tequila to Canada. Was there a particular catalyst that led you to further explore the business of liquor by producing your own spirit?
My good friend, JP Dejoria and founder of Patrón, introduced me to his brand. I drank it warm—beautiful, silky, and smooth. It was like nothing I had ever tasted. I thought, “Why can’t I get this in Canada?” I wanted to pick it up from my local liquor store and bring it to the dock; forget the entire country, I wanted it for myself. But JP said no, we have to bring it to Canada together. Over the ten years we had Patrón, we built it into the #1 luxury brand in Canada. After establishing that, I was looking for other categories. Looking at the vodka industry, I wanted to get involved. I wanted to see what I could do differently for the industry.
In 2006, you and your friend, John Alexander, came up with the idea for Crystal Head vodka. How did you develop this partnership and was this your first professional foray together?
I was in New York with John Alexander when he said he always wanted to develop tequila in a skull, but I couldn’t betray Patrón. I asked him to show me the bottle, thinking in a couple months he would have a design, but 2 minutes later he handed me the sketch and I knew we had something. It had a little grin; it was a happy skull!
Was bringing an additive free product to consumers a priority that you both shared and was it motivated by the importance of your own good health?
I knew we had to create a product that was different, that stood out from other brands. Through research, I learned that vodka manufacturers are adding ingredients like glycerol, citrus oils, and sugars to mask the vodka taste and smell. I knew we had to do better, so I created a pure spirit, free from the additives, made with pristine water and good mash with notes of sweet vanilla; dry, crisp.
Crystal Head sources its water from Newfoundland, Canada, where the vodka is also produced. Newfoundland is an island, and this no doubt presents certain logistical challenges when it comes to importing ingredients and exporting the final product. Why did you choose this relatively remote spot for your production facilities? (Was there, as the saying goes, something in the water?)
I love that saying; something is definitely in the Newfoundland water. What sat above the earth sixteen thousand years ago is now melted into the porous rock that is Newfoundland. When creating a high-quality product, it is so important you use nothing but high-quality ingredients and blend with the best water.
Crystal Head is filtered through Herkimer diamonds, a semi-precious quartz crystal. While there is no scientific reason to explain why this enhances the flavour, your taste-tasters note a difference, however hard that difference may be to exactly pinpoint. How did you land upon this unique material? Was there any precedent for this?
The semi-precious quartz crystal is actually the same material as the Mitchell Hedges skull, said to be one of the thirteen crystal skulls. The Herkimer diamonds add an extra layer of filtration to our vodka and lends a very slight stony, mineral-like taste.
The Crystal Head bottle was designed by Alexander and features a very unique appearance. We understand that you both have a fascination with the Day of the Dead, skulls, and the heavily disputed legend of the thirteen crystal skulls. What is it about this particular aesthetic and its connected folklore that piques your interest?
Over half the world believes in some type of phenomenon. The legend of the thirteen crystal skulls and the Day of the Dead celebration are symbols of life, reflecting power and enlightenment. These heads are a source of knowledge and allows us to connect to a higher power and purpose. John and I are fascinated by these stories and the acceptance that there is more to life than reality.
What were the challenges involved in manufacturing such a unique bottle?
Finding someone who was successfully able to create such a complex bottle was a huge challenge. The bottle took nearly two years to perfect. Every bottle is hand-inspected and takes up to sixteen times longer to create than a standard bottle. It’s produced by leading glass manufacturers in Europe and actually contains bits of crystal to achieve clarity of the bottle. To create the iridescent Aurora bottle, the classic bottle is placed into a sealed chamber and is electrically charged. Two metals in powder form are released into the pressurized chamber; the powder is drawn to the electrically charged bottle, completely coating them. The bottles are then baked at a high temperature, creating a uniquely iridescent, metalized finish. No two bottles are alike. It’s a long process to achieve such a detailed bottle and we aren’t cutting any corners.
We understand there was some controversy and litigation against the bottle design, both on a moral and creative level. How did you feel about this publicity and did this put a damper on the project at all?
In 2010, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario banned Crystal Head because they felt the skull bottle was an image that’s commonly associated with death. At the time, I felt this made the brand more appealing. It was never an unhappy head; it doesn’t have crossbones under it. It’s bright and happy. It’s smiling. The consumer really pulled through for us by starting a kind of letter-writing and web campaign to ask why it was not available. Launching the line has not been without its legal obstacles but it is a product we are proud of and will continue working through.
Aside from working as a producer and distributor of various beverages, you’re also involved in another side of the industry; you co-founded the House of Blues chain in 1992 with Hard Rock Café founder Isaac Tigrett. Almost thirty years later, and after many shifts in music culture, how has the chain—which is, of course, heavily linked to the music industry—evolved?
We started House of Blues with one location in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We were very reasonable and saw where we could go from there. It’s a tough business, but we managed to keep it alive when places like Planet Hollywood, Rainforest Café, and Hard Rock went under bankruptcy—but not us. It was the amazing board of directors who hung in there and helped the business evolve. In the end, quality always endures.
Tequila, vodka, wine… You’re working with a variety of distilleries and vineyards, and with products geared towards different demographics—towards different tastes and preferences, with different marketing aesthetics, etc. When it comes to any spirit or alcoholic beverage, what’s the through line for you, perhaps a common feature that makes you think, “This is a quality product”?
Quality products start with the people who make it. So, you need to always look at that first when assessing a product’s quality. Good quality people tend to make good quality products.
Do you have a personal cocktail of choice?
Dan’s 54 Bar Car
2 oz. Crystal Head vodka
splash of dry vermouth
splash of olive brine
1 pearl onion
Add a splash of dry vermouth into a glass. Swirl around to coat the bowl and dump any excess. Add Crystal Head and olive brine into a shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into the coated rocks glass. This method creates a subtle and delicate dirty martini. Garnish with a skewer of one pearl onion and two olives.