Patrick Ryan , young founder of single grain vodka brand, Ishka, has been marketing the spirit since 2016. But the story of the drink goes much further back – all the way back to 1901 when the factory in the Russian town of Vladimir began producing it. We had a few words with Patrick about his motivations behind the brand, what it’s like to run your own business and what is quite so special about Ishka.
How did you get interested in Vodka? What’s the story of your involvement with the brand?
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 market it really badly.
I understood why there were so few premium Russian vodka brands – it’s an image problem.
I decided I could do a better job, so 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.
What is the best way to drink Ishka? Can you recommend a cocktail recipe?
In Russia, you drink quality vodka ice-cold and straight, with some specific snacks on the side. I like Borodinsky rye toast with salo (bacon fat) and mustard, or pickled mushrooms and gherkins.
Obviously in the UK, we have much more of a cocktail culture – I really like this sour twist with two very Russian ingredient (raspberries and cranberry juice):
- 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.
Is this your first business venture?
I’ve tried a couple of things in the past but this is my first serious venture. I was never one of those ‘born businessman’ kids, and I was a bit of a socialist at university.
What have been the challenges you’ve faced in setting up the business?
The main things in alcohol are the level of regulation and the relatively high set-up costs. You have to be very persistent to get things done. Entrepreneurship is also quite lonely, and you have to be happy dealing with a lot of financial uncertainty. Raising investment was also challenging, but luckily a lot of friends and family have bought into my dream to make vodka great again!
What advice do you have to other budding entrepreneurs?
Go for it and learn by doing. One of the best books you can read on starting a business, especially if you don’t really see yourself as an entrepreneur, is ‘Let my people go surfing’ by Yvonne Chouinard (the founder of Patagonia). His philosophy is pretty straightforward – if you think you have an idea that people will buy into, take a step forward. If it feels good, take another step forward. When you sense something isn’t right, hold your ground and assess the situation. I used to spend a long time over-analyzing things and sitting on ideas. There are thousands of great ideas out there – the important thing is execution.
What are the difficulties of working in an international setting between the UK and Russia?
Dealing with our suppliers has its challenges – I have to go over there every now and then to sort certain things out. Russian business culture is very relational, they’re not great at dealing with things over the phone / by email. They’re also a little bit disorganized. On the upside, I get to travel!
What sets Ishka apart from other Vodka brands?
The word ishka comes from the Irish word ‘uisce’, which means water. Water is at the core of everything we do.
Firstly, 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.
In terms of the product itself, 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 locally-sourced Russian winter wheat. 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.
How did you come up with the design for your label?
I came across our art partner, Phonsay ( https://www.instagram.com/p22_art/ ) online and I felt like some of his pieces really resonated with the ideas I had in mind, so I just contacted him and asked if we could use his work. Down the line, the plan is to feature different artists with each batch, always around the theme of water and the ocean.
The brand logo and label text were the product of learning photoshop and trawling the internet for fonts. I knew in my head what I wanted, then just tweaked it based on feedback.
How would you describe your experience of using crowdfunding?
I LOVE crowdfunding! It’s a great way to do several things:
- Get a better understanding of the audience your product resonates with
- Pre-sell your directly to people who want to try it, so you can generate cash-flow for your launch.
- Generate free publicity and word of mouth in advance of your launch, which also creates interest from potential customers ( for us – bars, restaurants, off licences, distributors, etc.).
We aren’t really going to make any profit from our campaign – it’s more about marketing the brand and building a community. It also gives me an excuse to go on a month-long surf trip while I deliver the bottles!
The only downside is that IndieGoGo take about 8% of your funds in fees, but that’s the way with any share-economy platform. I’m really excited to get on the road and meet our backers, it’s going to be such a great adventure.
To help support Ishka, check out their crowdfunding page: Igg.me/at/ishka