Iceberg wrangling: The outdoors action behind the making of Alaska glacier vodka

Harvested glacier ice chunks begin the journey back to Alaska Distillery's plant in Wasilla.
Alaska Distillery photo

Outside magazine's long article this month on Alaska Distillery -- famous for its upscale Permafrost vodka as well as its smoked-salmon- and hemp-flavored varieties -- isn't about the drinking life. Writer David Kushner confesses he can't taste the difference between the melted Chugach glacier ice the Valley distillery uses and his water back home in the New York area. Rather, this story is about how the distillery captures glacier ice -- call it iceberg wrangling. And there's only one guy in Alaska licensed to do it. 

That guy is head distiller Scott Lindquist. He could settle for conveniently pre-melted glacial H2O from the Anchorage drinking-water supply in Eklutna Lake -- that's what a successful local bottled water seller uses. But “there’s no excitement in that. Where’s the sexy?” Lindquist explains. He is determined to get the purest, oldest ice he can. Writer Kushner discovers that pulling floating ice from the water near the foot of a glacier onto a rocking boat is something like reeling in a small whale. 

We angle toward an ottoman-size iceberg, and Lindquist leans over the bow, giddy. “That one would be great for Vegas!” he exclaims, referring to an upcoming liquor-industry trade show in Sin City where he wants to display a hunk of glacier. He pokes at the berg with a six-foot pike pole. “That’s a nice piece of ice,” he tells me, as water splashes his scruffy face. “It has color. I don’t see any debris. I can see striation. There’s some opaque and very compressed ice, so you got a lot of good crystals in that.”

Lindquist snaps into action. After years of false starts, he arrived at a proven method for landing icebergs. First he douses a pair of inch-and-a-quarter-long ice-climbing screws with hydrogen peroxide, disinfecting them as he runs his orange rubber gloves over them. The plan is to get close enough to the berg so he can hand-twist the screws into it and thread a rope through the eyelets. The rest of us will then help him tug-of-war the beast onto the deck.

Making the job more difficult is Lindquist's struggles with his eyesight. He has optic atrophy, which makes him legally blind.  

Lindquist has learned that he can't use only "first-use virgin water from a living glacier" in his vodka, so he mixes in spring water to get a more "full-bodied" drink. His fussiness about water sometimes drives his distillery partners nuts, Kushner writes. 

“The guy is an artist,” [Toby] Foster tells me with a laugh. “When we first started working together, he’d piss me off to no end, because he’d spend all day making a batch of water. My theory on Scott is that, because he’s blind, all his other senses—including his sense of taste—are heightened.”

Lindquist's standard retort: "I'm blind, but I have vision."

Read  more at Outside about Lindquist's long career of iceberg harvesting and the process of getting the ice back to the distillery: The Blind Man Making the World's Best Glacial Vodka