Thursday, December 1, 2022

Dan Aykroyd talks to the Star about adding Signal Hill whisky to his liquor cabinet


He’s been a Ghostbuster. He’s been a Blues Brother. And for the last 15 years, Dan Aykroyd has been a liquor salesman.

The Ottawa-born actor and producer sat down with the Star and his business partner Jonathan Hemi this week to talk about his Crystal Skull vodka — including an agave-based version — the relatively new Signal Hill whisky, how tough it was to get those skull-shaped bottles during COVID, and why he didn’t just slap his name and face on all the labels.

Why did you decide to branch out from vodka to whisky and agave-based vodka?

DA: Jonathan was looking to cross over into the tequila category but we didn’t want to do a straight tequila in a skull because there are so many other tequilas out there, so we didn’t want to be in that war.

And the whisky, which has already won some awards?

DA: We were looking to go into another category. Jonathan had done some research into brown spirits. And brown spirits seem to be having a massive upsurge now, especially with things like Buffalo Trace and other whiskies from the States.

Are you planning to move into any other categories?

DA: I don’t think we’re going to go into gin. We might look at some other formats for the vodka. We’re going to be releasing a cask-strength version of Signal Hill in the spring.

Given the supply chain issues that we saw for even standard products and packaging during COVID, how did you continue to source something as unique as your skull-shaped vodka bottles?

DA: One of the problems was access to silica, the fine sand these bottles require to be manufactured. That’s not the kind of stuff you find in the sandbox or on the beach. This is fine, fine sand with a much different composition. We begged. We cajoled. We sent representatives in the middle of the night. We did everything every other company has been doing to keep our supply chain going. I think we’re going to see some improvement in the coming year.

There are other celebrities who’ve gotten into the alcohol business. A lot of them do a licensing deal, and slap their name all over the bottle. How important was it to you to have an ownership stake?

DA: I invested in it from the very beginning, and had an interest to serve my family, and make sure we came out of the investment whole. Ryan Reynolds has made a similar commitment with his Aviation gin. He put money in and really got on board promoting it. Some other celebrities haven’t been as committed to getting out there into the market as he has or as I have.

JH: He’s being modest. This was his idea and he put the team together.

From the business model point of view, is your approach better than slapping your name on something and doing a licensing deal?

DA: Absolutely. What I’m doing is building lifelong relationships with people in retail, and multiple venue operators. Stores, chains, I go and meet them all. I go to the distribution warehouses. I sit down and give the lecture on the products, and I enjoy doing it. And I think that’s where my value is, is getting out and personally meeting everybody.We did a survey a little while back and I’d say not even an eighth of the consumers of this product know that I’m associated with it. So, it’s selling on its own.

You’ve seen off some competitors in the “vodka in a cool bottle” market over the years, haven’t you?

DA: Since we’ve been in business, there have been many brands that have come and gone. At least a dozen that I know of. Patron had Ultimate Vodka out there in a blue bottle; it’s gone. Machine Gun vodka is gone. All of these have come and gone, because they weren’t sustainable in terms of the consumer’s interest, nor I think the quality of the product. We had to put the best in there.

A lot of whisky brands buy their spirits from outside sources, and barrelage it themselves. Is that the approach you’ve taken with Signal Hill?

JH: Yes. We work with Hiram Walker Distilleries. We looked at buying a distillery, but what we wanted to make with the whisky would require a lot of different components that a small distillery just…it wouldn’t work. We hired a gentleman named Michael Booth, who is the former master distiller at Hiram Walker. And because he had just retired from Hiram Walker, we were able to get access to all of their special barrels that they don’t even really use. So he actually put the blend together with us. There are about 45 blends that we went through to do it. .”

You’ve got a lot of Canadian references in this whisky. It’s a blend, it’s got an iconic location in the brand. But you don’t have any rye in the mix. Why?

JH: So most Canadian whiskys don’t have much rye any more, if any at all. It started out during prohibition really. Most of it is corn. Ours is corn and barley. Mostly corn. It just makes for a better whisky, in our minds. A bit more bourbon character that way. People’s tastes have changed more to that softer, sweeter character you get in bourbon.

Smaller spirits brands tend to get snapped up by one of a handful of global giants, whether it’s Diageo, LVMH or Campari Group. Has anyone ever kicked the tires with Crystal Skull or Signal Hill?

DA: There’s been definite interest all the way along, from the beginning. From the first time we’ve put this product out, we’ve had people inquiring, but we’re in this for the fun of it, and we’re not in a hurry to divest of this wonderful thing we’ve created. We have a lot of fun with it. Look, if the right offer came along, we’d consider it. But it would have to be pretty attractive.

Would you still stick around in some role, even if you sold it?

DA: We’d want to stay in it. We’d want a continuum in it, and so would they. At Casamigos Tequila, George Clooney still has to go out and do the work even though he sold the brand.

Ever compare notes with other celebrities who have their own brands? Any trash talking with, say, Ryan Reynolds and his Aviator gin?

DA: I certainly don’t approach it from a rivalry point of view. I’ve never met Ryan Reynols. He’s from Vancouver, of course. He’s in gin, we’re in vodka — completely different categories. Bill Murray had a product out there a while back. I gave him some tips on what to do, how to get out there on the market. I wanted to help him with his, but other than that, not really.


Conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of Conduct. The Star does not endorse these opinions.

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The Editor

The Editor

I am the Co-Publisher of "The Native Press".