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In a slippery heist, 30,000 liters of iceberg water vanish from a warehouse on the Atlantic coast

Police in Canada are looking for 30,000 liters of water harvested from icebergs for vodka production. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Over the weekend, something precious was lifted from a warehouse in Port Union, a hamlet near the tip of the Bonavista Peninsula, the rocky appendage of Newfoundland where the wind makes trees grow sideways and where Canada dissolves into the northern Atlantic Ocean.

The pilfered material was valued somewhere between 9,000 and 12,000 Canadian dollars, or between roughly $6,800 and $9,000.

Vast enough to fill a tractor-trailer tanker, the loot was hard to miss. But it was also as fluid as any plunder ever pursued by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Authorities on the peninsula said Wednesday they were looking for 30,000 liters of iceberg water. The unbottled aqua, painstakingly harvested at sea by buccaneering captains and prized because it has no mineral content, had vanished sometime between Feb. 8 and Monday.

Had the water simply evaporated? Had there been a leak?

Impossible, said the head of a spirits company that claimed ownership of the unspoiled liquid, enough to make 150,000 bottles of vodka.

“We store it in secure tanks and we never, ever would have expected anyone to take such a quantity of water,” David Meyers, the CEO of Iceberg Vodka, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Iceberg water is harvested from sheets or chunks of the crystalline solid that cleaves off from glaciers or ice shelves and float out to sea, in this case traveling down from the Arctic in the same cold currents where the Titanic sank in 1912.

The pure liquid doesn’t go into hard liquors alone. It is also used for cosmetic products, such as soap and cream, and bottled as luxury drinking water. “It is so tasteless that it actually creates a taste,” advises the producer of one brand, whose bottles start at $10. Others go for as high as $100 and $150.

Critics of the practice have noted that 2 billion people drink from a water source contaminated with excrement, while others can afford to spend handsomely to guzzle water elaborately maintained by micron filters and UV light. A French engineer, meanwhile, has tried to narrow this gap, developing a model that would lug icebergs around the world to those who lack fresh water. There are also environmental objections, which note that human intrusion, even at a small scale compared to the forces responsible for melting sea ice, is unwise.

As climate change accelerates, the demise of glaciers has given rise to curious start-ups, as well as to scams. And apparently now to thefts.

The agriculture magazine Modern Farmer calls the burgeoning industry built around the icy bits the “Cold Rush.”

Iceberg Vodka, founded in Toronto in 1994, says it has a trademark on “Canada’s vodka” — the only premium vodka that’s entirely owned and produced in Canada.

“20,000-year-old icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland contain some of the purest water on earth,” the company advertises. “It’s that same purity that goes into every bottle we make.”

Meyers, the CEO, told “PBS NewsHour” last year that his company’s product draws on water that “has been frozen since the Ice Age 20,000 years ago.” But it sells a cutting-edge drinking experience, promoting a recipe for an “Iceberg bacon caesar,” which calls for a dash of hot cause and a crisp strip of bacon.

The company enlists Ed Kean, a fifth-generation sea captain known as “Newfoundland’s Iceberg Cowboy,” to harvest the floating ice in an expanse of water off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador known as Iceberg Alley.

Since 1997, he has extracted about 20 million liters of water, he told PBS. Harvesting the bergs requires a permit, along with “massive nets, a giant, ship-mounted hydraulic arm and, sometimes, a rifle and chain saw,” according to the Wall Street Journal, which profiled Kean in 2013. His original use for the ice, beginning in the 1980s, was to chill fish, ensuring that the seafood would meet the government’s strict quality controls.

“Iceberg Water is purity in a bottle,” he told PBS, saying it “tastes like water should taste.”

Kean said he looks for icebergs that are about the size of small homes. The best pieces have unusual protrusions, humps and overhands. Bigger chunks may dazzle, but they also pose a danger, liable to split apart and stir up tempestuous waters.

The process typically begins in the spring and early summer, and continues through late September. A smaller speedboat ventures beyond a primary vessel and approaches the berg. A harvester throws a net over a promising piece, known as a “growler” or a “bergy bit,” which is then hoisted onto the main boat using a crane.

The ice is cleaned with potable water or high-pressure steam, divided into smaller pieces and stored in containers. Then, it is left to melt.

At Iceberg Vodka’s warehouse in Port Union, the melted water is kept in a padlocked building, behind a padlocked gate, the CEO told the CBC. But one of the 10 tanks was found empty on Monday morning.

“Whoever did it, they knew what they were doing,” Meyers said, reasoning that those responsible would have needed a tanker truck to make off with the water. He said there were no suspects, and he couldn’t think of a possible motive. The burglary took “guts and stupidity,” he told local media.

If thieves mistook the water, which was insured, for a lifetime supply of premium alcohol, “they’re going to be thinking that vodka is pretty weak,” Meyers said with a laugh. “I’d be surprised, but who knows what people are thinking when they come in and take something like that?”

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