When Absolut Vodka was first introduced in the United States in 1979, it looked and tasted dramatically different from the other vodkas on the market. Absolut was one of the first image brand vodkas promising that you weren’t just drinking a spirit, you were drinking an idea, a culture, an ethos. Absolut was a vanguard brand and instead of marketing just their spirit, they turned to artists like Andy Warhol and Keith Haring to express that Absolut was more than vodka, it was cool. [Watch our video: How Vodka is Made: Behind The Scenes of Absolut Vodka]
Absolut was one of the early vodkas to offer flavors, first with Peppar and then with Citron. Absolut helped fuel the vodka explosion and helped give birth to immensely popular cocktails like the Cosmopolitan (which came directly out of the introduction of Absolut Citron). Absolut was also one of the first major brands to publicly support the LGBT Community, a segment of the drinking population that was often ignored by other brands.
At one time Absolut vodka was THE vodka. It had an undeniable velocity behind it that seemed like it would never end. Absolut suffered the fate of many things that are considered ‘cool’ – after a long and successful run, Absolut began to lose ground to new premium vodkas like Ketel One and Grey Goose. In addition to suffering from ‘coolness’ fatigue, this iconic spirit became too familiar. Because Absolut Vodka was such a major participant in American’s pop culture, it’s become increasingly difficult to step back and look at it for what it is: a unique vodka produced in Sweden.
Looking at Absolut through the same lens that we see Ikea or Volvo helps pull back the veneer of familiarity for a much deeper understanding of what this vodka really is, an impeccably crafted Swedish product. Absolut Vodka started its life in a much different way from most spirits. While the vodka itself has historical roots as “Absolut Rent Bravin” (Absolutely Pure Vodka), the Absolut Vodka as we know it today was created in 1979 as a Swedish export product. Spirits in Sweden are tightly controlled by the state, and so creating a new vodka in Sweden meant deep participation of the Swedish government. Absolut Vodka became more than just a new product – it was an embodiment of Swedish pride and craftsmanship.
The culture of Absolut is still one of pride and excellence. It runs on the motto “Onodigt Bra” or “unnecesarily good.” At the core of Absolut Vodka’s ethos is the One Source concept, a locavore approach that was lightyears ahead of its time when Absolut Vodka was first introduced. Absolut Vodka gets everything that goes into the bottle from the local area surrounding the distillery, from the Swedish winter wheat, pure spring water, and even the glass bottles that the spirit goes into. When you buy a bottle of Absolut Vodka what you are getting all comes from Sweden (the only exception are the flavored products where flavorings are produced outside of the region).
In addition to the One Source concept, Absolut Vodka goes to the extreme to conserve energy and resources. Not only do they reuse and recycle everything anything and everything, but their process for production of 50ml of vodka uses the same amount of energy to boil a kettle of water to make a cup of tea. From using river water to cool their fermentation tanks to recycling and reclaiming water, Absolut is one of the greenest distilleries we’ve visited.
The scale of Absolut is simply unreal. Producing over 11 million cases of Absolut a year, the Absolut distillery produces a staggering 600,000 liters of vodka per day, processing 600,000 kg of grain. Producing all this spirit in a single location means pitch perfect logistics, and Absolut does this with trademark Swedish efficiency and a crew of just 45 people on 5 shifts running 24/7 year round. Everything that can be automated has been, including one of the most dazzling warehouses we’ve seen.
Absolut Vodka bills itself as a pure vodka, and to achieve that they use a series of massive column stills to distill and rectify their spirit to a precise level. For Absolut Vodka, pure vodka doesn’t mean a neutral vodka, and one of the key aspects of Absolut is that you can taste elements of the winter wheat. The nose of Absolut has a yeasty breadiness which comes from both the Swedish winter wheat used to make the vodka as well as the custom yeast used in the fermentation. Absolut also has clear vanilla notes with an undercurrent of fruit including strawberry and cherry. These fruit notes are subtle and aren’t flavors – they come out of the production process. Absolut also has a heavier mouthfeel which is indicative of the base grain. Unlike many of the other major vodkas on the market, Absolut does not heavily filter their vodka. The focus for Absolut isn’t to strip flavors and character out, but to deliver them in the purest way possible.
One of Absolut’s strongest moves was to acknowledge that although they have a fantastic product, they’d become dated. It’s a difficult thing for a major company to see the need to renew their brand, especially a Swedish one that comes from a culture where excellence is prized but change often isn’t. To that end, Absolut went to the drawing board to reinvigorate the brand. Unlike many of the other major vodka brands, Absolut didn’t participate in the flavor wars, opting out of such flavors as whipped cream, caramel, and other confectionary flavors that have been so popular. Instead, Absolut went back to their core belief that they were indeed unique and launched Absolut Unique, an innovative bottling that put classic Absolut vodka in individually numbered bottles each with their own design and pattern. To do this on the scale of millions of bottles was a massive undertaking of exceptional effort and it helped Absolut Vodka stand back out again on the back bar.
From there Absolut turned its focus onto three distinct innovations. The first was a fusion of Absolut Vodka, white wine, and carbonation called Absolut Tune. This product helped establish a unique new category delivering a carbonated Champagne-like experience for drinkers looking for a higher proof experience. Absolut Tune was followed by Absolut Elyx, a new expression of Absolut Vodka that debuted in travel retail and is now making its way to the general US market.
Absolut Elyx takes Absolut’s commitment to purity to the next level. Absolut Elyx is made from single estate winter wheat, all coming from the Robolof estate located close to the original Absolut Distillery. This wheat is fermented and distilled using special copper column stills. In addition to the copper stills, the top section of the column is filled with copper rings to enhance the copper contact. Absolut Elyx is more neutral a vodka than the standard Absolut, but it greatly enhances Absolut’s relevancy as a modern vodka. Absolut Elyx gives Absolut an entry in the super premium vodka space that easily stands shoulder to shoulder with Ketel One and Grey Goose, both in terms of image and flavor experience. Absolut Elyx has such a superb structure including one of the best finishes we’ve seen on a vodka.
In addition to Absolut Tune and Elyx, Absolut is in the process of launching Absolut Craft, a collaboration with legendary UK Barman Nick Strangeway, the man behind the resurgence of punch. Absolut Craft turns the idea of what a flavored vodka is on its head, with masceration and distillation of flavor components that result in a staggeringly good spirit. Absolut Craft’s first release is Herbatious Lemon, which gets bright citrus from non-citrus sources including lemongrass, lemon myrtle, and lemon thyme. Absolut Craft is an on-premise only product that will only be sold to select bars across the country. It’s being produced at a significant loss to the company but should go a long way to rebuilding Absolut’s brand with many of the major craft cocktail bars in the United States.
Absolut is working on a wide array of other innovations aimed at reinvigorating the brand, like Absolut Amber, an oak aged vodka, as well as a number of other unique vodka expressions, some bringing together elements which aren’t common in the vodka space.
This is a key time for Absolut Vodka, who is comitted to reintroducing itself to consumers who may have forgotten about the brand, and in the process remind people of who they are beyond the signature bottle on the shelf.
Watch our video: How Vodka is Made: Behind The Scenes of Absolut VodkaAbout Absolut - Behind The Scenes of Absolut Vodka by Geoff Kleinman