The Viking Behind Iceland’s Volcanic Vodka

Thordur Sigurdsson is the most inventive distiller in the North Atlantic.

Reyka Vodka, Iceland’s most popular spirits brand, is headquartered in Borgarnes, a town of just under 2,000 people. The seaside hamlet is still better known for the salmon fishing on the Borgarfjordur River and as the birthplace of the great Viking warrior Egil Skallagrimur than it is for liquor, but reputations take time to change in a small country. Reyka Master Distiller Thordur Sigurdsson, himself a Viking by blood, is convinced he can make the west coast redoubt into the drinking capital of the North Atlantic.

“There have been other vodkas produced here, but not this way,” says Sigurdsson, who was an oil engineer before training as a distiller and also works as a part-time police offer and fire fighter. Something of a polymath, Sigurdsson figured out an entirely new way to filter booze, replacing charcoal filters with igneous rocks. The substitution makes an Icelandic sort of sense: Eylanda has a lot of volcanoes and very few forests.

Another special component to Reykais the use of glacial spring water. “The water is not distilled so the product has its natural water feel,” says Sigurdsson. “Why should we second guess nature in the way it provides us with this beautiful water and use something else? That wouldn’t be wise.” In keeping with that back-to-the-land warrior spirit, Reyka’s distillery is run on geothermal power.

If all that sounds rugged, consider this: Reyka produces its vodka in a Carterhead Still. The Scottish built still is one of only six in the world and was originally designed to distill gin. When distillers make gin, they place botanicals in a “basket” to add flavor. William Grant & Sons – for instance – uses a similar setup to produce Hendrick’s. Sigurdsson has his own ideas. “They put the gin flavor into the basket and when the spirit flows over it, you get the gin taste,” he explains. “We use it for filtration.”

Reyka is known for its crisp, clean, almost vanilla flavor. Most likely due to the filtration process and the use of the glacial water, Reyka doesn’t have the harshness and bite of some vodka on the market. The brand is increasingly popular in major American cities and Sigurdsson plans to continue building its reputation more or less by hand. When distilling, he take great pains to regularly check the alcohol strength. He wants to make something bold enough for the vikings.

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