Dan Aykroyd’s skull-shaped vodka actually all started with a thirst for good Tequila. ‘I like to serve a nice Margarita but you could only get two types of Tequila in Canada and they weren’t great brands.’
The desire to improve the cocktails he was drinking during summers on the lakeside dock at his farm in Ontario led to a request of friend and entrepreneur John Paul DeJoria, who was the owner of Patrón at the time. ‘I said to him, “Can I arrange to have some cases shipped up to my little government store in the village?” and he said “Well, Dan, we would have to bring it to the whole country.”’ DeJoria duly made Aykroyd the importing agent for Patrón in Canada in 2005, giving him his first job in the drinks industry.
I ask if he saw a recent story about fellow Canadian Drake insisting that Aykroyd was Patrón’s inventor. ‘He thought I invented it? Well, that shows you what a good job we did of the marketing!’
I meet Aykroyd in Ham Yard Hotel in Soho, which is his base for the weekend in a break from a rented house in Ascot. The actor, writer, musician and Crystal Head founder is in London promoting his vodka while over for six weeks to shoot the sequel to Ghostbusters Afterlife.
Aykroyd explains that once he had a couple of years’ experience in the drinks industry, it felt natural to start looking at other spirits. ‘I was thinking “I don’t want to be in the Tequila wars”. I looked at the vodka category, which is a $50bn industry worldwide, and thought “if I can get a slice or a sliver of that, it would be a good business”.’
I don’t want to be in the Tequila wars
Another of his illustrious pals, the artist John Alexander, was keen to see a spirit sold in a skull-shaped bottle. ‘My friend drew up this beautiful vessel in about 10 minutes and I looked at it and thought “how can I put a polluted substance in that?” I discussed the idea of a doing a pure spirit and the distiller said it could be done, so we tried a vodka without the fusel oils, without the glycerine, without the limonene, without the sugar.’
Today, it sounds almost banal to talk about the provenance and purity of products but it wasn’t as fashionable when Crystal Head was founded in 2007. Aykroyd seems passionate about both, reeling off the ingredients of the three varieties now available, extolling the virtues of the Canadian ‘Peaches and Cream’ corn used for one of the bases and of the glacial water used to make the vodka, which is taken from aquifers beneath Newfoundland.
I ask if he thinks Crystal Head was early in focusing on purity and whether it’s one of the main reasons behind its success (‘millions’ of bottles have been sold and Crystal Head is available in 80 countries). ‘I think people are now very conscious about it. We didn’t adapt to this new trend, we’ve been there since the very beginning with no additives. I don’t think any other vodka brand is doing it.’ Aykroyd says it’s a quality that plays well with professionals, as well as with customers buying vodka to drink at home. ‘London is one of our biggest markets because the bartenders are into molecular construction of cocktails and they love the no additives story. Even at home – if I’m making a Screwdriver, I don’t need limonene in there, I don’t need added sugar.’
Despite the knowledge it’s something he’ll have discussed a thousand times before, it’s impossible not to ask about the skull-shaped bottle, especially when one is glowering at me from a coffee table in the drawing room off the hotel’s ground floor restaurant. It’s redolent of Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God sculpture and is as tactile to hold as it is striking to look at. ‘It’s based on the Mitchell-Hedges skull, purported to be a polished skull owned by the Mayans.’ He explains the legend and the idea that the skull and the other seven like it in existence supposedly improved the fortunes of the people living around them. ‘I thought it’s a message of positivity and we’re trying to sell the idea of enlightened drinking. We could have called it Crystal Skull but I like the idea of the head; a head’s a living thing,’ he says, before adding, ‘and it has a little smile!’.
In addition to that smile, there are now spatters of rainbow colours for this year’s Crystal Head Pride Edition bottle. I ask how it came about. ‘The LGBTQIA+ community discovered us, they embraced us. We were happy to have that association and decided to devote a bottle to the Pride movement. We back it up by contributing to the Kaleidoscope Trust and other groups from the profits of each bottle.’
Unusual containers aside, celebrity endorsements currently seem to be The Big Thing in the drinks industry, be it The Rock’s Tequila, Emma Watson’s gin or Bob Dylan’s whiskey. Aykroyd is always professional and diplomatic when talking about the competition, steadfastly avoiding naming brands negatively – it’s entirely feasible he may genuinely be too good-natured for it to even occur to him. ‘I think the Casamigos Tequila that Rande [Gerber] and George Clooney make is an excellent beverage – really good. So they’ve policed the quality of that. Ryan Reynolds’ Aviation Gin is also a very good product; he got behind it. A couple of people just put their names on products and didn’t really sell them but those three guys got out and they sold and got behind them.’
We’ve been there since the very beginning with no additives. I don’t think any other vodka brand is doing it.
Aykroyd has built a reputation as a great salesman. He has entertaining stories of fans turning up in Ghostbusters outfits and Bluesmobiles to Crystal Head events, where he would sit and sign thousands of bottles for people until everyone had left. He’s off to a signing at Harvey Nichols after our interview. Naturally he gets in a plug as I move the conversation on to how he likes a Martini. ‘I tell you: this drinks really well in a Martini; it’s so clean. I like to do the traditional 1954 Long Island Railroad Martini. Say you are a salesman with a grey flannel suit reading your Wall Street Journal on the train in the 1950s, you could sit on the Long Island Railroad and ride in from Connecticut and a white gloved steward would serve you a Martini. So that’s a tumbler with ice, rinsed with vermouth, two-and-a-half to three ounces of the vodka shaken with a pearl onion and an olive, or a lemon twist. And there it is, quite simple.’
As well as spirits, Aykroyd is a wine lover. He was previously involved with a label in Niagara and can reel off a list of favourites from Bordeaux and Burgundy: ‘I love to crack open a bottle of Brane-Cantenac or anything with an “x” or a “saint” – Saint-Estephe, Saint-Julien, Bordeaux, Margaux. Love that. Chassagne Montrachet, Puligny Montrachet, Corton Charlemagne. Give me those!’
So just French wine? ‘Oh no, I love the American wines now coming out of Oregon and Washington state. There are some excellent reds. One of my favourite California wines is Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow. That’s very expensive but it’s a beautiful red. I like Carr Vineyards, I like Duckhorn, Cakebread… Pahlmeyer is a beautiful Californian wine. Rombauer is a beautiful Californian white. I know some people sit down to a meal and select the wine to complement the food; I select the food to complement the wine.’
Aykroyd is still heavily involved in the blues music scene, spending a third of the year on the road with a band and a ‘very active concert schedule’. Crystal Head takes up most of his remaining time, leaving little space for the silver screen. But what gives him the most pleasure at this stage of his life? ‘I like writing but it’s less satisfying or fulfilling now. [There are] a lot of films sitting on the shelf that haven’t been made – at a certain point, you look at that stack and go, “Do I really need to write another?” So, yeah, the music gives me the most fun.’
The future for Crystal Head includes a new Canadian whiskey, which will come in a different bottle to maintain the distinction of the vodka. Flavoured vodkas are off the cards, ‘it’d be completely compromising our story of purity because we would be adding oils’, but Aykroyd does foresee a move into premixed cocktails in the next year or so. His involvement in the drinks business may no longer be solely for the benefit of his own Margaritas, but Dan Aykroyd clearly still believes in improving the quality of the cocktails in all our glasses.