Kiwi’s vodka wheeze
Rory Ross raises a glass to the New Zealander with an unusual line in entrepreneurial spirit
The idea of a New Zealand vodka might sound about as tempting as a Polish Pinot Noir or a Russian Chardonnay, but within this apparent oxymoron is a remarkably successful idea. The man behind it is 39-year-old Geoff Ross, a former account manager at Saatchi & Saatchi in New Zealand, who underwent a Damascene conversion eight years ago when he set up a still in his garage in Wellington and began producing vodka using pristine New Zealand ingredients.
Eight years later, his vodka, named 42 Below after the latitude that bisects his country, can be found behind the bars of the world’s top watering holes. Yet Ross has produced this cult drink in a country with no tradition in spirits. And when he launched it, he had no experience of distillation and almost no money.
A thoughtful, shaven-headed father-of-two, Ross is apologetically modest when we meet at the World Cocktail Championships in Queenstown, New Zealand. This bizarre fixture, which he devised three years ago, is a test of “extreme” cocktail-shaking. Bartenders compete by shaking cocktails while bungee-jumping, hanging out of helicopters and braving white-water torrents aboard pirouetting jet boats. Marks are awarded for enthusiasm, bravery and, of course, a terrific cocktail. Bartenders also compete to invent the finest new “classic” cocktail. “It’s all about creating an unlimited range of flavour sensations in exhilarating environments,” says Ross.
Raising his voice over the screams of cocktailshaking barmen bungee-jumping off the Kawarau Bridge, Ross recounts the genesis of 42 Below. At Saatchi & Saatchi, he chafed at clients’ rejection of his inventive ideas for soap powder, so he began casting about for something else.
He caught the vodka bug when a friend plucked an iced bottle from his freezer and added it to some blended peaches and nectarines to produce a peach martini. It was a “Eureka” moment. If the key ingredients for premium vodka are clean air, crystal water and good growing conditions, he thought, then why not create a New Zealand vodka that capitalises on the purest environment in the world: the Land of the Long White Cloud?
Ross began distilling in his garage, with a clear idea of the taste he was aiming for. “Polish and Russia vodkas have a lovely oily texture and a little roughness at the back of the throat,” he explains. “Nordic vodkas tend to be very pure but hot on the lips and nose, and light in texture. I wanted the best of both styles: pure, oily and smooth.”
While holding down his day job at Saatchis, Ross toiled through the night. He scrounged cash off friends and nearly blew up his house when he fell asleep on the job — “Alcohol is very explosive.” Meanwhile, his pregnant wife, Justine, supported him by doing the deliveries.
Word spread and local sales grew, but Ross had grander aspirations. He wanted to market 42 Below internationally and hit on the internet as the ideal tool. “The internet is global, unregulated and the nearest thing to word-of-mouth advertising,” he says. He and his Saatchi colleagues produced a series of animated NPEGs (video emails) and sent them to friends. Risqué and witty, these clips spread like morning sunlight. “Ours became the most-hit website in New Zealand,” beams Ross. “Eighty per cent of visitors were from abroad.”
The inspiration for the World Cocktail Championships came during a trip to London. The bartenders he met were fascinated by New Zealand but knew little beyond what they’d gleaned from The Lord of the Rings. Other vodka brands, meanwhile, were holding unimaginative cocktail competitions in hotel lobbies. “I thought: ‘Why not hold our own cocktail competition in our backyard while bungee-jumping?’”
And so the Cocktail World Cup was born — although it didn’t all go Ross’s way. A diehard Kiwi patriot, he had to grit his teeth as he anointed a team from Great Britain as world champions.
Today his vodka, like the championship that promotes it, remains a triumph of vision over sanity. 42 Below contains a paradox: total reverence for the purest and best ingredients shaken up by screamingly irreverent marketing.
“I was incredibly naive,” says Ross, who recently added three new drinks — South gin and the rums Seven Tiki and Tahiti Dark — to his portfolio. “Had we conventionally researched launching a New Zealand vodka, the answer would have been a resounding ‘No’. Sometimes you just have to believe in your idea and go for it.”