Kiwi’s vodka wheeze

Rory Ross raises a glass to the New Zealan­der with an un­usual line in en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Food&drink -

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.”

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