How SNL Alum Dan Aykroyd Became a Vodka Titan

A chat with the comedy legend about his 10-year-old label

By Evan Bleier

 
How SNL Alum Dan Aykroyd Became a Vodka Titan
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22 October 2018

This piece is part of an ongoing editorial partnership with RealClearLife, a news and lifestyle site that connects successful men to everything they need to know. Be sure to head over to their website for the latest. 


As the writer and star of classic ’80s movies like Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers, and Dragnet, Dan Aykroyd came up with some of the most well-known comedians of the last half-century.

A member of Saturday Night Live‘s original cast, Aykroyd continued to chug along with varied roles in beloved movies like Driving Miss Daisy, Tommy Boy, Coneheads, Nothing But Trouble, and Grosse Pointe Blank. 

Then, about a dozen years back, Aykroyd—who also co-founded the House of Blues chain of music venues—got interested in a different sort of chugging. Well, perhaps more accurately, sipping.

While having a drink with a friend in the Los Angeles House of Blues Foundation Room, Aykroyd was convinced to try some Patron Silver, despite being wary of tequila after some negative experiences from the liquor in the past.

As the drink disappeared down his throat, so did Aykroyd’s bad feelings about tequila. He became so convinced of the liquor’s virtues that he eventually became professionally involved in getting the entire Patron line imported into Canada so he could have  buy bottles at the government-run liquor store in the Ontario village where he lives.

Though his involvement with Patron has lapsed, Aykroyd’s place in the spirits business has not, as he, along with artist John Alexander, co-founded Crystal Head Vodka 10 years ago.

Crystal Head tequila, which just introduced a limited-edition version of its signature skull bottle, contains no additives and is distilled four times into a neutral grain spirit before being filtered seven times. Three of of the filtering steps involve layers of semi-precious crystals known as Herkimer diamonds.

To share his experiences after more than a decade in the spirits business, Aykroyd sat down with RealClearLife for the latest installment of  the “10 Questions With” series.

Bottoms up.

RealClearLife: What are your favorite and least favorite things about the vodka business?

Dan Aykroyd: My favorite things about the beverage alcohol industry are doing brand education sessions and meeting retail and bar operators and their consumers. Least favorite is the immensity of managing a worldwide export product and incentivizing personnel down the chain to motivate them. Isn’t an award-winning, premium quality, zero-additive vodka which comes in a skull enough?! Apparently, no. Distribution houses have hundreds of brands to service and we must constantly do creative stunts to stand out. These are both costly and a challenge to implement where the dollars hit the pavement.

RCL: What is the biggest misconception about your industry?

DA: Misconception: That the path to great success and high valuations (i.e. Grey Goose, Skyy, Ketel One, and Patron) is quick and easy. Most successful brands who reached these lofty heights of enterprise value have been in business for a decade or more. It took the Patron team 20 years to get to the point where it was valued at $5.1 billion.

RCL: What is something that the public wouldn’t know about the vodka business?

DA: The public is unaware of the additives poured into some of the non-premium vodka brands out there. The theory is that these additives or “fusel oils” are put in there to hoax these products. Glycerol is added to mask the alcohol scent as many distilleries are a little short on hygienic regulations. Limonene, a terpene (think citrus oil in its raw form sometimes used as a caustic cleanser) is added to provide a synthetic viscosity. And then there is the added sugar. Crystal Head Vodka lives without these additives. Our product does not need to mask its pure clean scent.

RCL: What is the most ridiculous thing or person it has led you to encounter?

DA: We frequently hold bottle signings with retailers. One time, a much-tattooed guy came up to me holding an infant. He handed me a sharpie and requested that I sign his child’s shoulder. Why? Because he wanted my signature to be the infant’s first tattoo. He intended to have the arm etched in permanent ink as soon as I had signed the skin. I declined.

RCL: What did you want to be when you were 10 years old?

DA: At 10 years old, all I wanted was to use the plug-in lawnmower my Dad gave me for my birthday to cut grass for fees in our large suburban neighborhood. I did so for multiple summers making a substantial profit. Homeowners were paying me to mow their lawns using their own electric power.

RCL: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned along the way?

DA: Biggest lesson so far is that, when team building, there is no room or time for negative disruptors who have problems with the world because of how they were raised. If their mother and/or father couldn’t do a good job it is not my task to complete. Anyone who exhibits hostility against co-workers needs to be cut right away.

RCL: What’s the funniest thing about the vodka business?

DA: It’s funny how some people launch a brand and expect it to be an instant hit. These are rare stories and even ones that look like overnight successes have a lot of work behind them in time, energy, and resources.

RCL: How does it compare to being in comedy?

DA: In comedy, unless you are a mime or Harpo Marx, the form requires you to do a lot of talking in stand-up, improv, and scene-playing both in television and movies. The vodka business is the same. I do a lot of talking, as I am to you now.

RCL: What do you feel like you are sacrificing to have this career?

DA: I’ve sacrificed a ton of great acting roles. However, the enjoyment of building a genuine, enduring brand which we have, more than makes up for any artistic relinquishments.

RCL: What’s the key to success in your field?

DA: The primary key to success is the quality of what you are marketing. If the quality is indisputably high then the consumer, once discovering the product, will stay with it. Also, know who you are selling to. Recent surveys have shown Crystal Head Vodka consumers to be technology and design-oriented with college degrees and many are women with this constituency growing due to our zero-additive, clean drinking, and 65 calories per shot story. Smart people love the Head.

All photos courtesy of Crystal Head Vodka

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