Legend of the Crystal Head

Steve
Steve Bartlett
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Aykroyd and partners getting high-end vodka bottled here

When there was something strange in his neighbourhood, who did Dan Aykroyd call?

The Newfoundland Labrador Liquor Corp. (NLC).

The veteran Hollywood actor, known for comedies like "Ghostbusters" and "Blues Brothers," and a group of partners have enlisted the liquor corp's plant to blend and bottle a high-end vodka that's being sold in a skull-shaped bottle and marketed with all the supernatural zaniness that is Aykroyd.

"We've got a good story, with a great bottle with a pedigree of a designer who is one of the best-known painters in the American art world. The weakest part is the celebrity mouthpiece," the Ottawa-born Aykroyd quipped in a recent interview with The Telegram.

This skull-shaped bottle is being filled with vodka at the Newfoundland Labrador Liquor Corp.'s plant for actor Dan Aykroyd. - Submitted photo

When there was something strange in his neighbourhood, who did Dan Aykroyd call?

The Newfoundland Labrador Liquor Corp. (NLC).

The veteran Hollywood actor, known for comedies like "Ghostbusters" and "Blues Brothers," and a group of partners have enlisted the liquor corp's plant to blend and bottle a high-end vodka that's being sold in a skull-shaped bottle and marketed with all the supernatural zaniness that is Aykroyd.

"We've got a good story, with a great bottle with a pedigree of a designer who is one of the best-known painters in the American art world. The weakest part is the celebrity mouthpiece," the Ottawa-born Aykroyd quipped in a recent interview with The Telegram.

How Crystal Head Vodka ended up being produced in St. John's is not quite the stuff of movies, or even a "Saturday Night Live" skit.

But it is an interesting yarn that begins about two years ago in the New York loft of leading American artist John Alexander.

"He's an old friend," Aykroyd says. "I met him when he stole my girlfriend back in the 'Saturday Night Live' days."

The actor updated the artist about his foray into the business of selling wines and tequila.

Alexander confided that he'd always wanted to bottle tequila in a skull.

"I said, 'Well I can't do that. Let's do a vodka,'" Aykroyd remembers saying.

In about five minutes, the artist had sketched a skull on a napkin.

It was basically the head of a native American girl, Aykroyd says.

The actor wanted to do a pure vodka.

His tequila and wine distributors had a connection with this province's liquor corp and inquired about getting the NLC involved with Crystal Head.

Phil Power, the corporation's product development manager, says they showed him the skull-shaped bottle and said they would like to do 5,000 cases.

Even though the skull bottle was - and remains - a challenging shape for the production line, they agreed to give it a try.

So after being distilled in Ontario, the vodka is blended with Newfoundland water and then bottled.

It's the second vodka blended at the NLC. The province-owned corporation also does Iceberg Vodka.

Aykroyd and his team have attached an elaborate tale to the beverage and, upon introducing the product last fall, released a video that took the online world by storm, with hundreds of thousands viewing it.

The video - which can be seen at www.crystalheadvodka.com -shows Aykroyd talking about, among other things, his fascination with the invisible world, the legend of 13 crystal heads and ectoplasma.

It's so off-the-wall and entertaining, many people speculated it was a trailer for "Ghostbusters III," which is early in the writing stage.

"The idea is that you're drinking an enlightened beverage of pure spirit," he says of the story told in the video.

"The legend is (that of) the crystal heads, which, as you know, there were 13, seven in mankind's possession, (and they were) supposed to have psychic powers in terms of predicting the future, analyzing the past and helping to manage the present.

"Even if you believe in this stuff or not, when you start in the beverage industry, you've got to have a story. You can't just walk in with a nice package and the fluid in it. You've got to have a story behind it because bartenders like to tell stories. The mixologist is kind of a new psychologist of the age."

In the video, Aykroyd also talks about Newfoundland, referring to it with gusto as "The Rrrock."

"I love the Newfoundland part of the story - to be able to go around the world and talk about Newfoundland, and The Rock and the myth of The Rock, and the distinctiveness of The Rock and its culture and its people," he says.

He's also glad his vodka is being made with pure Newfoundland water.

And sales have exceeded even Aykroyd's wild imagination.

"We're holding back because we can't make enough of it," he says. "I can't even open a new territory. I have to go back over where we've been and supply what's already gone."

As of March 19, Power says, the production line at the NLC's Kenmount Road plant has produced approximately 30,000 cases - six times more than the original estimate.

Due to that increase, the liquor corporation is in the process of hiring more staff and increasing the number of people on its production line.

"Yes, we are looking at ramping up significantly," says Tony Pollard, vice-president of the supply chain.

It hasn't been released in other parts of Canada yet, but the Crystal Heads are disappearing off the shelves in this province.

Power, who is featured in the video, says more than 800 bottles have been sold in Newfoundland and Labrador, which is good for a high-end spirit priced at just under $50 a bottle.

Aykroyd is a key part of the marketing that has resulted in the strong U.S. sales.

Instead of lending his image and name to an advertising campaign, he has been going into markets, addressing sale forces directly and throwing concerts with the Blues Brothers - a band with a cult following that stemmed from a "Saturday Night Live" sketch and subsequent movie featuring Aykroyd and the late John Belushi in the '70s.

"Just basically getting the fluid into the hands of the distributor and into the mouths of the public," he says of his work, noting he can see the Blue Brothers coming to St. John's for a free concert some day.

"I'd love to play in the backyard of the distillery."

Aykroyd says the bottle is an effective calling card that receives strong reactions, everything from shock and horror to delight and affection.

"It's a beautiful thing to walk in the door with. I can't quantify the fun I'm having with it."

In his product pitches, Aykroyd seems to delight in praising Newfoundland and Labrador.

"I tell them that it represents the best of Canada," he says. "(That) there's not the fascination with hollow, shallow celebrity. People are more concerned with their community. There's a real outgoing affection Newfoundlanders seem to have for everyone who visits there; that it is, environmentally, one of the cleanest places in Canada, that it has its own distinct culture in terms of music and visual arts and writing, and academics. And that it has its own accent. ... I can't say enough good things about it.

"And I love the courage of their premier, how he stood up to these corporate interests, these hog, greedy, monster, energy companies, and also how he stood up to the government of Canada so that Newfoundlanders won't be exploited. He's a great figure."

The entrepreneurial Aykroyd hopes his vodka delivers a great figure, too - in the economic sense.

He wants to build Crystal Head into a worldwide brand, to a point where every bar on the planet has a glass skull full of vodka on it.

He's banking on the taste to get it there.

"The celebrity name can only get you so far. The beautiful head, the glass head designed by the great American artist, can only get you so far. If the fluid is not in the bottle and people don't respond to it, it's just another gimmick and it's going to go away," says Aykroyd, who will be in St. John's this summer for meetings and was here in 2008 promoting his wine.

The NLC also hopes Crystal Head continues to expand.

"It's certainly well ahead of expectation at the present time," says Pollard. "We certainly hope it will do much better. ... We hope that it will expand exponentially."

sbartlett@thetelegram.com

Organizations: NLC, Newfoundland Labrador Liquor, The Telegram Blue Brothers

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John's, Hollywood Ottawa New York Canada Ontario Kenmount Road U.S.

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Recent comments

  • CG
    July 02, 2010 - 13:30

    Someone should ask NLC to prominantly display those bottles. I saw them tucked away on the very back shelf when I was there.

    They should be front and centre. They could potentially sell so much more that way.

    I also think Dan Akckroyd should show up from time to time - unannounced - to give out samples. That would be awesome.

  • Jon
    July 02, 2010 - 13:29

    I tell them that it represents the best of Canada, he says. (That) there's not the fascination with hollow, shallow celebrity. People are more concerned with their community. There's a real outgoing affection Newfoundlanders seem to have for everyone who visits there; that it is, environmentally, one of the cleanest places in Canada, that it has its own distinct culture in terms of music and visual arts and writing, and academics. And that it has its own accent. ... I can't say enough good things about it.

    Thanks Dan!

  • Angelica
    July 02, 2010 - 13:15

    Why is this only now getting to our media? It was announced back in early October because the internet was ablaze with it back then.
    ....1/2 an hour later, in an island in the sea...

  • K
    July 02, 2010 - 13:12

    We bought 2 bottles last October for gifts. It's a great conversation piece. I too am wondering why it took this long to get in the media.

  • Frances
    July 02, 2010 - 13:11

    Well, isn't that nice to hear :)

    Yup, thanks, Mr. Ackroyd. It's nice to know we're not forgotten!!! Every time I see things like this said about home, I just smile from ear to ear. But dang, he goes there AFTER I move away *pout*. Always happens..always. :)

  • JT
    July 02, 2010 - 13:09

    Well, it doesn't fix the economy or cure cancer or even whiten teeth (although Homer Simpson would argue that alcohol is the cause of... and the solution to... all life's problems ) but that's pretty darn cool.

    And I don't even drink vodka!

  • CG
    July 01, 2010 - 20:18

    Someone should ask NLC to prominantly display those bottles. I saw them tucked away on the very back shelf when I was there.

    They should be front and centre. They could potentially sell so much more that way.

    I also think Dan Akckroyd should show up from time to time - unannounced - to give out samples. That would be awesome.

  • Jon
    July 01, 2010 - 20:17

    I tell them that it represents the best of Canada, he says. (That) there's not the fascination with hollow, shallow celebrity. People are more concerned with their community. There's a real outgoing affection Newfoundlanders seem to have for everyone who visits there; that it is, environmentally, one of the cleanest places in Canada, that it has its own distinct culture in terms of music and visual arts and writing, and academics. And that it has its own accent. ... I can't say enough good things about it.

    Thanks Dan!

  • Angelica
    July 01, 2010 - 19:55

    Why is this only now getting to our media? It was announced back in early October because the internet was ablaze with it back then.
    ....1/2 an hour later, in an island in the sea...

  • K
    July 01, 2010 - 19:49

    We bought 2 bottles last October for gifts. It's a great conversation piece. I too am wondering why it took this long to get in the media.

  • Frances
    July 01, 2010 - 19:48

    Well, isn't that nice to hear :)

    Yup, thanks, Mr. Ackroyd. It's nice to know we're not forgotten!!! Every time I see things like this said about home, I just smile from ear to ear. But dang, he goes there AFTER I move away *pout*. Always happens..always. :)

  • JT
    July 01, 2010 - 19:44

    Well, it doesn't fix the economy or cure cancer or even whiten teeth (although Homer Simpson would argue that alcohol is the cause of... and the solution to... all life's problems ) but that's pretty darn cool.

    And I don't even drink vodka!