Iceland's small-batch spirit distilled over lava rocks
Only a handful of components are necessary for making Reyka vodka: a grain spirit made from quality wheat and barley, water, geothermal energy, lava rock filtration and a custom-crafted, copper Carter-Head still. The incredibly smooth spirit is the upshot of Iceland's pristine environment, which affords the distillery an extremely pure brewing process. We recently had the chance to meet with Reyka's master distiller Kristmar Olafsson in Borgarnes, who shed greater insight on their small-batch production.
Steam produced by molten rock is funneled in a stainless steel pipe to the distillery, where it heats Olafsson's beautiful Carter-Head gin still, which was handcrafted in Scotland. One of only six in the world, Reyka's earns the unique distinction of being the only one used for crafting vodka. This gives Olafsson the advantage of controlling the spirit's path, manually manipulating the machine throughout the process and capturing only the best part of the spirit for bottling. Traditional vodka stills force the distiller to use the entire spirit from beginning to end, and in order to remove impurities it has to be distilled again.
"When we start to distill—this is just like when you're boiling water in the kitchen—the vapors start to rise up when the spirit is close to 100 degrees [celsius], and we keep it inside the tower here in the beginning because when the vapors start to rise up it passes through a lot of copper pipes. Everything is created just to remove impurities from the spirit, and we distillate, or boil it, for about 30-40 minutes and keep it always inside the tower. The lightest ingredients stay in the upper part of the still, and that's the part we are removing from the spirit. These are the impurities that give it a bad taste and bad smell."
Olafsson removes about 30-40 liters of impure liquid in this initial process, which is simply discarded. He knows when the time is up by his expert sense of smell, and the remaining desirable vapor is pushed to another tower in the still, cooled down for a bit and returned to a liquid state. They then distill about 1,200 liters of 96% alcohol for five or six hours, resulting in the spirit that is used for Reyka later on. The last 250 liters is significantly weaker at around 35% alcohol, which they separate and use for flavor-infused vodkas like Opal Red.
To bring the spirit down to a more drinkable 80 proof, they blend it with water from the nearby Grábrók spring, ideally located on a 4,000-year-old lava field. This is then run through actual lava rocks—which they change about every three months—for the ultimate in natural filtration.
One taste of Reyka vodka and it's clear that something is different. It feels silky on the palate, and the clean flavor is easily sipped neat. Currently the eight-person team at Reyka is producing around only 400,000 bottles a year, but Olafsson hopes to increase this over time, slowly but surely. His distribution approach is not unlike that of his distillation process, both the result of extreme patience and well-earned instinct.
You can purchase Reyka at shops throughout the U.S. and U.K. (as well as in Iceland) for around $20 a 750ml bottle.
See more images in the slideshow. Photos by Karen Day