Smoked-salmon vodka is best served the Alaskan way. Take a houseful of drunken St. Patrick’s Day revelers. Add a woman in a black dress dancing in a bearskin and a couple of ruddy guys back from a paragliding trip. Then drop a sliver of ruby red fish in your glass.
That’s how I’m served my first shot of the stuff one wintry March night after landing in Anchorage. A couple dozen locals are partying inside a ranch house strung with holiday lights near the frontier bars downtown. Jet-lagged and hungry, snow caked up my jeans, I have been whisked into the kitchenette, where the effervescent hostess, wearing a green beaded necklace, pours me a jigger. “It’s better with this,” she says, tossing in the salmon with a tiny splash.
The hostess and some others here are from the Alaska Distillery, based in nearby Wasilla. The small company has made a name for itself in the booming flavored-vodka sector—now 20 percent of the overall market—with a range of innovative blends, including the smoked-salmon vodka, introduced in 2010, and the first commercially available vodka distilled with hemp seeds, dubbed Purgatory and released in February 2012. (It contains no THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.) These concoctions, as well as a half-dozen fruit-infused vodkas, have the unique distinction of being made partly with meltwater from icebergs harvested in Prince William Sound.
When it comes to the quality of liquor, “water is very important,” says Jeff Cioletti, editor in chief of Beverage World, the industry’s trade magazine. “People with sharper palettes can discern it.” It’s also the ingredient most likely to be hyped in marketing materials. Think of Scotch made with Highlands spring water, or the legendary limestone aquifers that keep Kentucky bourbon pure. Even Coors boasts “Rocky Mountain spring water” as its source. The pitch is always about purity and authenticity. Here, glacier water is hard to beat, which is why glacier branding is so ubiquitous in the beverage industry. One of the largest vendors of water and ice machines in the U.S. is Glacier Water, a $100 million company that uses no actual glaciers. (Its headquarters are in Southern California.) Glacier Mountain, based in New Jersey, fills plastic bottles for office watercoolers from underground springs in Appalachia.
Look around, though, and you can find a number of products sourced from authentic Ice Age relics. There’s 10 Thousand BC, meltwater that’s collected from a granite basin at the foot of British Columbia’s coastal Hat Mountain Glacier and has been stocked in the VIP suites of Las Vegas hotels for $10 a bottle. Serac “genuine Glacial Milk,” a cloudy white beverage from Nevada aquaceuticals brand Glacia Nova, is harvested from Mount Rainier’s Carbon Glacier during a brief summer window, when minerals below the shifting ice mix with the melt. According to Glacia Nova, the stuff is “linked to extraordinary long life, health and virility among indigenous peoples throughout the world.” In trendy clubs from New York to Tokyo to Santiago, cocktails are mixed with glacier ice cubes and sold to patrons for $50 a glass. Last February, Chilean officials busted an ice harvester who carved out almost six tons from a glacier in a national park in Patagonia. The man had loaded his haul into a refrigerated truck and was driving to Santiago to sell it by the pound to upscale bars and restaurants.
Because glacier harvesting is done in insignificant quantities, there’s little regulation of it around the world. There are no federal guidelines in the United States. In Alaska, the only state that requires permits, there has been only one permit holder for most of the past 15 years—Scott Lindquist, head distiller of Alaska Distillery. A salt-and-pepper-haired 51-year-old, he takes to the water several times each year during the September-to-May tourism off-season to collect some 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of icebergs from Prince William Sound. He hauls in blocks weighing 300 to 8,000 pounds so he can tap their ancient water, which he insists is the best in the world. “It’s the quality of something so special and so old,” he says.
The challenges and risks inherent to Lindquist’s work are heightened by the fact that he suffers from optic atrophy, a degenerative eye condition that blurs his vision so much that he is considered legally blind. Though he’s not able to drive a car or navigate a boat, the beauty of the pristine glaciers lures him onto the water.
“I’m blind,” he says, “but I have vision.”