Michael Wyrsta at Opal Restaurant. Photo by Lara Cooper, Noozhawk.
Attacking complicated problems is nothing new to chemist Michael Wyrsta. The
“Gaucho purebred”—who received both his BS and PhD at UCSB—lends his
considerable talents to developing vaccines, solar energy cells, green carbon
technology and eco-friendly building materials and making natural gas into
gasoline and green carbon technology. Now he’s turning his talents to creating
RND Vodka (www.RNDVodka.com), which hit the shelves of Santa Barbara restaurants and
retailers this summer.
Leslie Dinaberg: How on earth did you decide to start this vodka
Michael Wyrsta: (Laughs) That is a really good question. … I was in a liquor store
looking at all the stuff on the shelf and I thought it was pretty unfortunate that all
of the brands on the shelf were pretty much imports.
I mean the good stuff.
… I was like, “why don’t we have something up there that people like or …
people respect or just think that there is some kind of cachet to it?” … So then I
went to lunch with my friend Mark Collins and I said, “You know this is lame. We
should have our own great American vodka.”
He said, “Yeah we should, let’s do it.”
Seriously it was a snap decision.
LD: To try to do it on your own.
MW: Yeah. I wrote a check right there and we just started working on it.
MW: We didn’t know anything about making vodka at that time and then we
quickly learned about it. For me as a chemist it’s easy to understand the
chemistry part of it. … But in terms of how do you put a package together, how
do you do all of this stuff we had a lot of stumbling blocks in the
Then we got our art director, Kim Kavish involved and she’s great. … She really
helped right the ship and corrected a lot of the mistakes we’ve made in terms of
the design. Then there was a long process of licensing.
LD: So about a year ago you came up with the idea. Did you start developing the
product itself at the same time you started developing the
MW: Exactly. We have a distillery in Colorado that we worked on our formulation
… What we actually do is ferment our sugar source which comes from corn, and
then go the whole process, fermentation, distillation, purification. We use really
good Colorado Spring water. It’s really clean, it’s really pure and we do our own
filtration, so we do the whole process from grain to bottle.
Then it became a logistic thing. We had to develop the identity, develop the
formulation and then develop the logistics to support all that because we wanted
it to be a unique bottle.
LD: It’s definitely a unique shape. I can also see where this would stand out in a
bar. A lot of vodkas have really pretty designs but they’re just
MW: Exactly. They fade. We call that snoozing on the shelf.
LD: It seems like you’re getting a lot of recognition, including a piece in Sunset
Magazine, especially for how early in the process it is.
MW: Yes, we just launched end of July/early August.
LD: What part of your time is this endeavor?
MW: It does take a lot of my time right now … I have two other companies. A
CO2 company and I also am the CEO and president of a vaccine company up in
San Diego, so I have quite a bit of responsibility with that and I’m really busy.
That’s okay; I like doing all that stuff. For us it’s just something we have to do
until we get up to speed. My wife Inez and my best friend Lindy Lindstrom really
help a lot too.
LD: With high-end vodka is the push more on being in bars and restaurants
versus liquor stores and grocery stores?
MW: We have to be in all of them. We have to be everywhere basically because
they both support each other. … We are an ultra premium vodka, we’re
handmade, so we have more costs, we don’t do mega-scale, which a lot of
people do. So in that respect we’re focused on higher end stores, higher end
restaurants just because of the clientele.
It’s not different than a bottle of wine, if you get a good bottle of wine from Santa
Barbara it’s really expensive but you’re getting something that’s really high
I’m a scientist, so what I’d like to do is when this thing gets up to speed and we
get some real money coming in and profits, part of our goal is to donate some of
our profits to science education here in Santa Barbara.
LD: That’s great.
MW: Which would be probably through UC Santa Barbara or at that
LD: I was thinking about that because I do a lot of fundraising for the elementary
schools and I can see people objecting to donations from a liquor
MW: And that’s okay, I wouldn’t be against doing anonymous donation because I
understand there’s a perception issue and we wouldn’t want to be encouraging
kids to drink vodka at all. This is isn’t a 9 a.m. vodka; this is a high end sipping
vodka. We’re not promoting that lifestyle so if we were to go that route we would
definitely do something in a more low key, anonymous route.
But for me at least, science is really important and it is to the company too. In a
philosophical sense to us science is one of the few things that has been giving us
answers. We look to it when there is trouble. For example, whether or not it’s
global warming we’re looking towards a whole bunch of solutions but obviously
science plays a part in that. For example, look at the swine flu; we’re looking for a
vaccine to help us out or a drug. People to look to science for answers for really
discrete problems … it’s just sort of a way of thinking about problems and how to
solve them. It’s not about displacing any other belief system or a way of living just
taking stock on how we look at the world and addressing problems head on. I
think that’s important for us and if this is a vehicle to help do that, that’s
MW: If we can give something back that would be great. That’s how we’re trying
to position it and work it. I live here, Mark lives here, Kim lives here. … We’re
always supporting local events; we did the museum nights for example. We like
to support the arts too, we’ve done Santa Barbara Trustees and the Alumni
Association at UCSB, so we try to be involved in all that stuff.
LD: My best gauge of how good a vodka is, is usually how I feel the next day.
How does one tell a good vodka from a not so good one in terms of taste?
MW: For me-I’m not a heavy drinker and I’m kind of a wimp when it comes to
hard alcohol-so for me I wanted the smoothest, easiest drink of vodka because
ultimately if it’s going to go in a mix, or if you’re going to drink it straight, you want
it to be able to mix well with everything and you want to be able to drink it on the
rocks or with just a little bit of something.
… It has to be really smooth and it has to have a really low burn and really light
feeling … It’s an interesting spirit because it’s very neutral in a lot of ways but
what most people don’t notice there’s a harsh feeling, a burn with a lot of lower
end vodkas and that’s a function of what’s in it. There are other molecules that
are in vodka typically that produce that feeling.
We’ve come up with a formulation that allows up to have a smoother, lighter
feeling. Sunset Magazine recently described it as ethereal and that’s a good way
of describing it.
LD: You’re launching in Santa Barbara at a really good time. There’s this trend of
Farmer’s Market cocktails where people are using all of these fresh ingredients
and sort of the sweet with the sour with the savory, all of this kind of wild stuff
that is pretty new.
MW: I think it’s great. It follows that whole foodie trend so they want high quality
drinks with really fresh ingredients.
LD: I have the list of where it’s sold locally-Roy’s, Opal. Elements, Lazy Acres,
Gelson’s, Liquor and Wine Grotto and on and on. You must have a marketing
person that’s on that.
MW: It’s just me really.
LD: That’s a big job.
MW: Yeah, I know.
LD: How did you come up with the RND Vodka name?
MW: … RND fit a lot with my background in science and markets and also
funding science. It’s a play on research and development, clearly, but it’s also I
always thought it was cool because on your gearbox in a car it’s always RND,
reverse, neutral and drive. So I always thought that was a cool little thing with
both the science and the way you see it every day in your car.
… We wanted to make it a little bit more ambiguous versus just research and
development where you would use an ampersand typically. People might be able
to come up with their own names for it: Rebels Never Die, or Restores Natural
Desires. There are so many things that people have come up with, we have a
bunch of them on our Facebook site. (http://www.facebook.com/pages/RND-
LD: When you came here for college from Rochester, New York, did you think
you were going to stay?
MW: No. When I first got here for college I was like, “Oh my God where am I?” I
had no idea. It was a different universe. It took me a year to used to it. But then
you adapt. It is really different, I mean it’s almost like a different country, … but
once you figure it out it’s a great place-I love it.
LD: What else do you do when you’re not working?
MW: I love mountain biking; I surf if there’s surf. … I love the ocean and the
mountains so I take advantage of both of those.
LD: If you could pick three adjectives to describe yourself, what would they
MW: Oh no. Three adjectives. Oh God. Busy, really busy. I also think I’m creative
Vital Stats: Michael Wyrsta
Born: In Rochester, New York, July 6, 1974
Family: Wife Inez
Civic Involvement: Donates to a number of organizations including UCSB Alumni
Association, CALPIRG, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Acts of Love-Autism
Speaks and the Trustee Association of Santa Barbara.
Professional Accomplishments: Graduated from UCSB in 1996 with a BS in
Microbiology and received a PhD in Materials from UCSB in 2002. Chemist for
start-up ventures, including GRT, Inc, SBA Materials, and BioSolar, Inc;
President and Founder, RND Spirits, Inc.
Best Book You’ve Read Recently: Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas
Little-Known Fact: “I’ll give you two. I went to a Jesuit High School and I had
long, blond dreadlocks right before I got my PhD.”
Originally published in Noozhawk on December 13, 2009. To read the article on that site click here.