An Irishman reviving authentic Russian vodka-making techniques combined with elegant branding and an eco-concious mission – what’s there not to like? So when Patrick Ryan got in touch with me to chat about his new product – Ishka – and to see how we can collaborate, I jumped on the opportunity straight away. Sadly cultural stereotypes are hard to shake off and the vodka-drinking culture is laced with so many cliches, propagated both in and outside Russia, that this business definitely needs a fresh, new, dynamic voice, which Mr Ryan undoubtedly has. Intrigued as to why an Irish man (who speaks perfect Russian, by the way), would like to take on a mission of making vodka relevant, elegant and eco-friendly, I couldn’t resist asking Patrick to do a little interview for KinoVino blog.
I spent several years working in the Irish whiskey business, where I developed an understanding of how spirits are made and marketed. I then moved to Moscow and worked in the Irish Embassy (trade department). I spent a lot of time sampling with the locals! On top of that, Russians kept coming to me trying to sell good quality vodka that was really badly branded. They have this amazing heritage, but they don’t always market it that well. It was all bears, AK47’s and ‘ultra premium’ written all over the packaging. I understood why there were so few popular Russian vodka brands – it’s basically an image problem. The market is controlled by American, Swedish and French brands. It’s pretty strange given the drink’s Russian roots. I’m really passionate about Russian culture – there is so much there that people don’t know about, in terms of food, art, literature and history. I spent a lot of time showing friends and family how to drink vodka the Russian way, and they all loved it. I decided I could do a better job marketing it than a lot of the existing brands, so I set about making one.
What’s the origin of the name?
The name is a nod to the deeply shared origins of distillation in Europe. In Irish Gaelic, uisce (pronounced ishka) means water. Uisce beatha, water of life, is the old Irish word for whiskey. The word vodka also comes from the Slavic root for water. They used to call vodka zhiznennaya voda – water of life. It felt like a great name for Russian vodka made by an Irishman. I’m a bit of a language nerd, in case you didn’t guess.
What makes Ishka different?
Water is at the core of everything we do. We use 100% pure H2O and bottle at 43% ABV. This really allows the quality and flavour of our spirit to shine through. The spirit is made from Russian winter wheat. This is a bit pricier than things like rye or potato, but you get a much lighter finish and a better mouth-feel. The Russian government grades all spirits produced in the country by purity, and ours is Alpha – the top rank. We are also lucky to work with a partner that has over 100 years of experience making vodka – these guys really know what they are doing. Aside that, we reinvest 10% of our profits in innovative projects that help to protect and repair our oceans. My main focuses at the moment are plastic collection and aquaculture, particularly seaweed farming.
How did you come up with the idea?
I spent about a year researching and contacting distillers. I found a producer I was happy with and worked with them to perfect a recipe based on feedback from focus groups. I wanted something, clean, smooth and classically Russian, with the very best quality ingredients available. I knew what made a good base spirit from my whiskey days, so I had that as a starting point. Our partner’s head engineers are great, they really know their stuff and helped us create an absolutely mind-blowing vodka at a really honest price. In terms of the packaging, I just played around on Photoshop until I had something I was happy with. The artwork is by an Australian artist – he’s brilliant!
What are the Russians saying about an Irish man producing vodka?
To be honest, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Russians are very proud of their culture, and rightly so. Most of them like to see a ‘Westerner’ casting it in a positive light. I have a few friends in the Russian economic ministry from my days at the Irish embassy, and they’ve been really helpful.
Russia needs to diversify its exports at the moment and reduce reliance on oil and gas. Vodka is something they do well, and having an Irishman selling it arguably makes the job easier – we’re pretty likable folks!
Do you drink vodka much?
I love vodka, but not exclusively – I also like beer, whiskey and gin. Anything well made. I go for quality over quantity – I think that’s a trend in alcohol generally at the moment, and it’s great. I would rather people buy a bottle of Ishka once every couple of months than five bottles of Smirnoff!
What’s your favourite way to drink vodka?
In Russia, you drink quality vodka ice-cold and straight, with some specific snacks on the side. It’s a really fun and sociable way to enjoy your vodka.
I like Borodinsky rye toast with salo (bacon fat) and mustard, or pickled mushrooms and gherkins.
Obviously in Europe, we have much more of a cocktail culture – I really like this sour twist with two very Russian ingredient (raspberries and cranberry juice).
I call it the Malina:
- 50 ml of Ishka
- 8 Raspberries, muddled
- Juice of half a lime
- Dash of cranberry juice and simple syrup
- Egg white
- Shake, strain and serve with a dash of bitters.
What’s your favourite thing to toast to? Do you toast?
Of course! You don’t spend two years living in Russia without toasting! It’s something we have in British and Irish culture too, but it’s not so common. It depends on the occasion. Generally, I toast to friendship. Russians are deeply loyal people, and take their friendships very seriously. I respect that.
Who is this drink for?
Ishka is an authentic Russian vodka for people who don’t drink rubbish. It’s for people who want the highest-quality vodka available, but don’t buy into the marketing nonsense involved in charging £35 – £100 or more for a bottle.
Is vodka essentially a Russian drink?
Ah – that old debate! If we look at etymology, we can establish pretty clearly that it’s a Slavic drink. There are a lot of Slavic countries that make great vodka. Even so, it was actually Italians that first brought distilling apparatuses to the areas that correspond to modern-day Russia and Poland. Of course, anybody can make vodka, but the Russians have been perfecting it for a long time. They know what they’re doing. I’m open to trying drinks from anywhere, but generally I drink my whiskey Irish, my gin English and my vodka Russian.
If you like Patrick’s philosophy and ethos behind Ishka, why not get involved to support his campaign and treat yourself to this pure water of life. Click here to find out more.