As Dan Aykroyd stood watching the snow fall outside his friend John Alexander’s art studio several years ago, he could not have known that a hastily drawn sketch of a skull would lead to the birth of a singularly unique spirit that very night — but then, Aykroyd has encountered a number of surprises during the creation and growth of his Crystal Head Vodka.
Aykroyd, the writer, actor and musician who has created and breathed life into some of the most memorable characters in pop culture over the past several decades — from Elwood Blues to Beldar the Conehead to his many roles as an original member of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players on ‘Saturday Night Live’ — was discussing the concept of bottling liquor in a skull-shaped vessel with Alexander that night. He asked the artist to work up some concept drawings and expected to see some ideas in a month or so. It didn’t take quite that long. “I turned around, and he had sketched out the Anna Mitchell Hedges Skull,” Aykroyd says. “I said, ‘That’s it!’”
Aykroyd, a self-described fourth generation spiritualist who has curated a longtime interest in the unexplained and the paranormal, was fascinated by the legend of the 13 Crystal Skulls — the most notable perhaps being the one found by Mitchell-Hedges in what is now Belize. “I knew that if we could make that in glass, we could sell the idea of the purity of what we’d put in it — a no-additive spirit,” Aykroyd says. “It would be clear and it would have a little smile to convey mischievousness and a good time. Everyone has a skull, it’s a popular design, and you’ll see it with this satiny-white, clear liquid inside the skull that will resemble the sacred skulls of the indigenous peoples of South America and the Native Americans and the Anasazi.” The two worked to create a sculpture, transfer it to AutoCAD and sent the plans to Italy, where it was then produced by Milan-based Bruni Glass — a process that took more than two years.
“By God, we made this bottle,” Aykroyd says of the complex Alexander-designed creation. Yet it’s what’s inside that’s the real story. Crystal Head Vodka is one of the world’s most pure vodkas, created with no additives, no glycols and no added sugars. Nothing is added to enhance or mask the flavor — sweet, vanilla, dry and crisp on the palate with a kick of heat at the end. “The distiller said, ‘If you take out the glycerides and the added sugar, you’re going to get a smell of alcohol when you open the bottle and a taste of alcohol.’ I said, ‘Yeah, uh-huh, that’s what we want to make cocktails with and have as a cold shot.’”
The team tried several blends of corn before settling on Canadian corn. The vodka is distilled four times and filtered seven times — three of those through semi-precious crystals known as Herkimer diamonds — which turned out to be the next surprise for the actor/entrepreneur. “When I heard about this, I said, OK — Herkimer diamonds, it’s a nice tie-in,’” he says. “Herkimer is near Rome, New York and Griffiss Air Force Base, which had a lot of UFO scrambles there in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. They are a double-sided crystal that can only be found in Oaxaca, Mexico, a valley in Afghanistan and in upstate New York. “I’m thinking to myself, the crystal ties in nicely to the UFO thing and the Navajo said the skulls were brought from star children, which is a nice subtext. But if I’m a chemistry teacher in any high school and I’m pouring C2H5OH over crystals, it’s not going to do anything. But we did tests. We poured our vodka over these beautiful, satiny crystals and people tried it with and without. One hundred percent of the people preferred the vodka filtered through the crystal diamonds.”
The result — a pure vodka with a natural viscosity (thanks to the Canadian corn, Aykroyd says) that can be a mixologist’s best friend. “Bar chefs love us because it’s a blank canvas,” Aykroyd says. “It’s the virgin slate to start a cocktail with. Bartenders these days use a range of additives, and they love us because we’re the only pure spirit out there.” A large part of that purity is thanks to the very deliberate decision to produce Crystal Head Vodka in Newfoundland, Canada. Aykroyd, a proud Canadian, cites a number of reasons for crafting the vodka in Newfound- land — not the least of which was its location above an aquifer deposited by the Wisconsin Glaciation 16,000 years ago.
“It was the water,” he says. “Vodka is an old Russian word, an ancient Russian word for water. We wanted the purest water we could find. The reason it’s so pure is that Newfound- land looks like a sponge from space. It’s full of ponds and lakes and the ice really chewed into that porous rock. You’ve got that pure, pure well that was never touched by the eerie plume of pollution.” Then came the next revelation: an undefinable character that comes from the vodka’s place of origin. “The people of Newfoundland are lovely, lovely people,” Aykroyd says. “There’s a great spirit there that always endures in the province. There’s a little bit of that love that goes into Crystal Head. I certainly believe in the spirituality of the product. I believe in the afterlife, and I believe we can make our life more positive by believing in positive things. People seem to like it. We’re going on 11 years in a very competitive business and we’re still around. We have a genuine story.”
Written for Celebrate by Bill Burke.