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Field Notes From A Vodka Odyssey, From Sweden To Ibiza

When it comes to the art of producing liquor, whiskey and his brothers, bourbon, scotch, and rye, get all the glory. The stringent rules (like what makes a spirit a whiskey vs. bourbon vs. scotch vs. rye), the complex aging processes, the culture around drinking it, and of course, where we envision it’s made (on idyllic farms in the Kentucky countryside or in storybook stone buildings in the Scottish Highlands), all draw drinkers into a romantic world.

Then there’s vodka, whose production process, taste and consumption is perceived by many as less interesting — without nuance and unworthy of whiskey-like passion. Basically, vodka can seem kind of boring and lacking in story. Plus, to plenty of people, it’s simply the liquor you drink to get drunk, especially for those with lingering memories of vodka shots poured from cheap plastic containers in college.

But vodka is so much more. The clear booze is the base for thousands of delicious cocktails (not to mention many of the classics), and for any human who enjoys a drink now and then, a basic understanding of what you’re drinking and what kind of vodka you like is essential. If not to satisfy your curious mind, then at least to impress a date.

Personally, I’ve been in serious need of a proper vodka education for nearly a decade, as was most apparent whenever a bartender asked me if I had a vodka preference for whichever drink I ordered — to which my standard response was, “Uhh, it doesn’t matter.”

Thankfully, the opportunity to finally understand vodka arrived a few weeks ago when Absolut invited me on a whirlwind trip to Southern Sweden to learn how their vodka is made, then to Ibiza, Spain to see how their vodka is consumed. Obviously, I said yes.


Welcome to Åhus, Sweden

After a seven hour flight to Copenhagen, Denmark and a one and a half hour drive over the border and into the green, southern Swedish countryside, my vodka-fueled adventure began in the medieval beachside village of Åhus — the hometown of Absolut.

A popular summer destination known to Swedes but seemingly no one else, Åhus is home to 10,000 full-time residents, with the number tripling in summer, thanks to a docile coastline with calm waters and soft sand beaches. After five minutes enjoying my seafront room at Åhus Seaside, I was out the door and headed into town (because why lounge around when there’s unlimited vodka nearby?).

Waiting for me in downtown Åhus was Jakob Sundin, one of Sweden’s best mixologists, managing partner at Scandinavia’s leading cocktails and spirits consultancy agency, and an Absolut Mixologist. Sundin was flown in from Stockholm to help facilitate our vodka crash course — proof that sometime journalism is still a fancy, elegant profession.

Wasting no time, we walked along the narrow harbor filled with well kept boats and settled in outside Åhus Guesthouse, a cozy hotel that’s older than America, for a welcome cocktail.

After two pineapple martinis (see below for recipe) and just slightly buzzed, we continued down a cobblestone street and into the airy town square. There, an ice cream stand drew a line of 20 Swedes. Naturally, we joined them.

Giant cone of ice cream acquired, we continued our stroll down another quaint cobblestone street lined with flowers and small, colorful buildings. I wondered how Absolut, one of the world’s biggest vodka brands, and one of the world’s most recognizable brands, period, could come from this tiny, quiet seaside town. But then again, I never thought about where it did come from — because people don’t usually think about a vodka’s origin story the same way they might with whiskey.

It didn’t take long for the omnipresence of Absolut in Åhus to become clear. Not long after we got our ice cream, two 18 wheelers drove slowly past with “ABSOLUT” in big, bold, blue letters scrawled along the side. Another two blocks down the road, I saw where they’d been headed — Absolut’s original distillery.

Built in 1906, the large brick building surrounded by a tall brick wall gives off a serious Willy Wonka vibe. But since this trip was a golden ticket type situation, we went inside — and for a blind vodka tasting no less.

Today, Absolut Vodka is made in a state-of-the-art distillery just outside of town (more on that below) while the historic factory is used to make and bottle Absolut Elyx. Manually distilled in a vintage 1921 copper column still, Absolut Elyx is made using wheat sourced from a single farm which has been producing wheat since the 1400s (there is literally a castle on the property). That means you can drink Absolut Elyx and look at a photo of the golden wheat field it came from.

Remember when I said the vodka making process is often perceived as being less romantic than that of other liquors? Watch this video and you just might feel differently.

Anyway, about that vodka tasting. I’d never had vodkas from different brands laid before me and been instructed how to carefully compare the way they look, smell and taste. So up until this point, all I knew was that certain vodkas were better than others (because I’ve had plenty of the poured-out-of-plastic-container variety) but I didn’t know why. For the most part, I thought vodka was vodka.

Commence tasting. Remember when I said there’s a perception that vodka is without nuance and unworthy of the same passion inspired by whiskey? Or when I said, I thought “vodka was vodka” three lines ago? Anyone who feels that way has never done a vodka tasting. (See below to learn how to conduct you own at home vodka tasting).

After the tasting, someone sober drove us to Kippers Kallare, a popular restaurant in the nearby town of Kristianstad. There, behind an unmarked, wooden door at the end of a dimly lit room, we discovered a secret bar where we were to learn from the best bartenders in the world how to make vodka cocktails. Waiting for us inside was our master mixologist, Jakob, and a platter of Raspberry Rushes (see below for the recipe).

Buzzed yet again, Jakob then showed us how to make our own Espresso Martinis (see below for recipe). Aside from being delicious, it was the first real cocktail I’d ever made (as in an alcoholic drink involving more than just booze, a mixer, and if I was feeling fancy, a slice of lime) and was surprisingly more satisfying and gratifying than drinking a cocktail that was just handed to me.

Later that night, the “is this real life?” moments continued when we drove outside of town to a private county estate (basically Swedish Downton Abby) where our hosts turned the property’s old kitchen and laundry house into a secret shrine and intimate event space. Here, the owner of the property, a 20-something-year-old countess (really) and several Åhus-based Absolut executives joined us for a 20-dish smorgasbord dinner — complete with vodka shots and strawberry cake (a traditional Swedish desert). Oh, and since the night’s theme was Midsummer, a Swedish holiday celebrated on the longest day of the year, that from what I could gather is a bigger deal than christmas, everyone, male and female, wore flower crowns — another Swedish tradition. Basically, I was that snapchat filter/every girl at Coachella used circa 2014 and liquored up enough to be totally cool with that.

The next morning, the helicopter that was supposed to pick us up on the beach outside our hotel and fly us to breakfast couldn’t land due to fog, so we had to drive to breakfast like peasants. The helicopter ride did have a valid purpose though — to give us an aerial view of the farmland surrounding Åhus from which Absolut sources its wheat. The drive through the beautiful countryside, somehow also managed to do the trick.

Absolut

Breakfast was served in a fairy tale-worthy, 500-year-old barn belonging to a farmer who farms wheat for Absolut (while breakfast isn’t open to the public, the farm does operate a cool little brewpub in the barn next door). And since we were sitting in a wheat farmer’s barn looking out over his wheat fields, our hosts took this opportunity to teach us about wheat.

By far the most important ingredient in most vodkas (some vodka is made using potatoes instead of wheat), Absolut takes their wheat incredibly seriously. First, it’s not just any wheat, it’s winter wheat — which is planted in September, withstands Sweden’s cold winters, and is harvested the following August. Being in the ground for 11 months allows the wheat to build up the starch levels required for making vodka, as opposed to making bread.

To supply the entire world with Absolut Vodka I assumed they’d need to source wheat from far and wide. Wrong. Not only is every ounce of Absolut distilled and bottled in Åhus, all of the winter wheat used to make every last drop is sourced from about 450 independent farmers within a few miles of the Absolut distillery. More specifically, from a single region within Skåne, Sweden’s southernmost county.

That means no massive factory farming operation, no shipping wheat from around the world and no multiple distilleries on multiple continents. Just one distillery and one community.

Remember when I said that vodka is perceived by many as having less of a story behind its production process as compared to other liquors, like whiskey? The case was starting to fall apart. How many spirits have that sort of farm-to-table sourcing?

Now that we’d had plenty of vodka and saw where its most important ingredient comes from, it was finally time to see how it was made — and how it gets from this little town in Southern Sweden to the rest of the world. To do that, we wrapped up breakfast and headed to the distillery.



How Absolut Ends Up In Your Mouth (A Step By Step Guide)

Wheat Intake

Grain from the surrounding wheat fields is delivered by local farmers every second hour throughout the day, 24/7. Deliveries are scheduled 6 months in advance.

Fun fact: Since vodka is a pure spirit with nothing else added and no aging process, the characteristics of the raw ingredients (like wheat) are noticeably reflected in the quality and taste of the final product.

Hammer Mill + Sizer

After the wheat has been dropped off, dried and stored, it’s sent to the hammer mill where it’s milled into a fine flour.

Mashing

Water is added to remove the insoluble protein gluten and the mixture is boiled. Through the mashing process enzymes convert the large starch molecules in the flour into simple sugars.

Fermentation

Yeast is added, which converts the sugar to alcohol. Then after 48-52 hours, the fermented mash has an alcohol content of about 10% ABV.

Fun fact: The carbon dioxide produced from this process is captured, stored and sold to make carbonated drinks.

Distillation

This mixture is then distilled using a practice called continuous distillation to distill and rectify the spirit up to 96% ABV — the alcohol by volume percentage needed to call it vodka. Continuous distillation also means that the spirit has been distilled hundreds of times. It’s in this stage that the character of the final product is shaped, as distilling is all about knowing how to take away the compounds you don’t want and keep the ones you do.

Fun fact: The bi-product from the raw spirit distillation, called stillage, is high in protein and sold off to feed 250,000 pigs and 40,000 cows every day.

Add Water

You don’t want to drink 96% ABV vodka, so water is added to bring the ABV down to 40% (more than half a bottle of vodka is water). But it’s not just tap water. It’s pristine spring water sourced from a massive aquifer nearly 700 feet underground (which the entire region sits atop). The water found in this aquifer has taken thousands of years to filter down through the bedrock so it’s naturally very clean and requires little processing. This water contributes greatly to the quality and natural mouthfeel of the product.

Fun fact: Absolut reports being “climate neutral.” Records show that they maintain the lowest energy consumption per unit in the world among large distillers.

Bottling

The bottles are rinsed with Absolut Vodka and then filled with Absolut Vodka in an elaborate bottling facility. Each bottle is inspected by human eyes, not once, but twice! Once before it’s filled and once before being packaged to make sure every bottle is flawless.

Shipping

The bottles are then sent to the warehouse where they’re shipped out to over 80 countries. The warehouse has storage for 10.4 million bottles, which is three weeks worth of production.

Drinking

You’ve got this part handled.



Hello Ibiza!

Having seen where and how Absout is born, it was time to experience where…people drink it? Vital research! To accomplish that, we could have driven back to Copenhagen (the nearest big city) and visited the hippest bars or trendiest nightclubs. But if I learned anything from my two days in Southern Sweden visiting Absolut, it’s that the company doesn’t half-ass anything — so instead we drove to the Copenhagen international airport and hopped on a plane to global party mecca, Ibiza, Spain.

Wasting no time (we only had 24 hours in Ibiza), we checked into our hotel, changed and headed to the marina. Pretending to be rich and famous/in a late ’90s hip hop video, we boarded the private boat chartered for us for the day and motored to the nearby island of Formentera. Off the coast, we swam in the crystal clear turquoise water, dried off, then went ashore for a lunch of seemingly endless payaya and champagne at Es Moli de Sol — a favorite restaurant of the world’s jet set crowd.

Back on the boat, we lounged until the legendary Ibiza sunset lit up the horizon — all the while continuously topping up our elderflower vodka tonics (see below for recipe).


That night, we drove 30 minutes inland and down a dirt road in the San Lorenzo hills to Ibiza Food Studio – The Finca, the private home and newest restaurant of ex-Noma chef Boris Buono. Each course of our multi-course meal, which Buono sat down at our table to present, was served under a rustic pergola near the pool and paired with a cocktail. And to be clear, not a tasting, a full cocktail.

Four perfect hours later, at 2:30am, our meal came to a close and we got in our van to head back to our hotel. Just kidding, we went to Pacha, one of the island’s most legendary nightclubs, arriving sometime after 3am. Quick aside: now would be good time to mention I had to be up at 7am to go to the airport for my flight back to Los Angeles.

Within a few minutes of getting comfortable in the VIP section above the dance floor, a massive bottle of Absolut (with a sparkler on steroids attached to the top) arrived at our table, along with glasses, ice, mixers and a bottle of champagne. This is how celebrities live all the time. How could they ever get agitated?

It was somewhat bizarre looking at that big Absolut bottle, surrounded by flashing lights and blasting dance music, and thinking about the peaceful winter wheat fields and the sleepy, beachside town in Southern Sweden where it was made. The juxtaposition was almost comical. But vodka is, I came to realize over the course of this trip, the chameleon of the liquor world, able to blend in and be at home in any setting — from quiet neighborhood bars to backyard summer barbecues, to clubs like this — fueling party goers well into the morning.

Speaking of morning, I got back to my hotel around 5:30am, slept for about an hour, made it to the airport (looking like a zombie from The Walking Dead), then embarked on my 19-hour journey back home.

In that time, after making my connecting flight in Düsseldorf and sleeping through every second of it, I thought about how my perception of vodka had been turned on its head over the whirlwind three and a half days I spent in Europe.

I remembered when I assumed that the vodka production process was less interesting than that of other liquors. I remembered not even really thinking about where the vodka I was drinking came from, because there’s no way it could compete with bourbon’s idyllic farms in the Kentucky countryside or scotch’s storybook stone buildings in the Scottish Highlands. Then I visited Southern Sweden and saw an intricate and involved process, where a products was made with every bit as much precision, pride and sense of place.

I remembered thinking “vodka was vodka” and that vodka was largely the liquor you drink to get drunk. I remembered saying, “Uhh, it doesn’t matter” whenever a bartender asked me if I had a vodka preference, because I didn’t know. Then I drank delicious vodka cocktails and did a blind vodka tasting where I learned to understand and taste the differences between vodkas and discovered that maybe it does.

And it only look me flying to the other side of the world and being treated like a millionaire to come to these realizations! Hopefully for you, however, this article will do the trick and help you appreciate and understand vodka a little more than you did a few minutes ago. If nothing else, hopefully it has given you a few facts you can recite to impress your date.



Cocktail Recipe 1: Pineapple Martini

Fun Fact: The Pineapple Martini was invented in 1997 by bartender extraordinaire Ben Reed. Back then, cocktail culture wasn’t what it is today, and using fresh fruit juice instead of mixes was pretty groundbreaking. In fact, Reed has said about the beginning of the cocktail renaissance, “It may sound funny, but back then you couldn’t even find a bar that had fresh mint and fresh fruit.” Things have certainly come a long way — but this classic cocktail is still delicious as ever.

Step 1: In a shaker, add 6-8 chunks of fresh pineapple, a splash of simple syrup and a splash of fresh lime juice (optional) then muddle

Step 2: Fill the shaker with ice

Step 3: Add 2 parts Absolut Vodka

Step 4: Shake until cold

Step 5: Using a fine strainer, pour into a chilled martini glass

Step 6: Garnish with a slice of fresh pineapple

Don’t know what a “part” is in drink making? Here you go.



Cocktail Recipe 2: Raspberry Rush

This is the perfect blended cocktail for summer entertaining (this recipe will make a batch of 10). You will however, need to buy a slush machine, which, even if you just use to make this drink will be money well spent. .

Step 1: To your slush machine, add 350ml Absolut Vodka

Step 2: Add 250ml raspberry puree

Step 3: Add 1 liter of cranberry juice

Step 4: Add 300ml of simple syrup

Step 5: 650ml of water

Step 6: Follow your slush machine’s instructions for chilling

Step 4: Pour into chilled glasses (or into mini milk jars with colorful paper straws as seen above)



Cocktail Recipe 3: Espresso Martini

Fun Fact: The Espresso Martini was invented in London ing 1984 by world famous bartender Dick Bradsell when a top British model asked him to make her something that would “wake me up and f*ck me up.”

Step 1: Fill a shaker with ice

Step 2: Add 2 parts Absolut vodka

Step 3: Add 1 part Kahlua

Step 4: Add 1 part cold espresso coffee

Step 5: Add 1/2 part simple syrup

Step 6: Shake until cold

Step 7: Using a strainer, pour into a chilled martini glass

Step 8: Garnish with a few coffee beans



Cocktail Recipe 4: Elderflower Vodka Tonic

For an easy, fun and sophisticated twist on a simple Vodka Tonic, try using a flavored tonic water.

Step 1: Fill a glass (or fun jar cups) with ice

Step 2: Add 1 part Absolut vodka

Step 3: Fill the remainder of the glass with elderflower tonic water

Step 4: Garnish with a lime wedge



How To Do A Vodka Tasting

Having a vodka tasting is a great way to better understand and appreciate vodka, not to mention discover your favorite kind. So invite some friends over, and using what I learned from the Absolut experts in Sweden, conduct your own at home vodka tasting. Here’s how:

The Preparation

  1. Visit a liquor store and buy vodka from at least three different brands. Make sure to mix it up by buying vodkas at different price points (so you can compared taste to cost) and from different countries (so you can compare taste to region). Pro tip: to avoid breaking the bank, buy the small sample sized bottles usually found near the register.
  2. Chill the vodka in your freezer overnight, or for a few hours.
  3. Line up sets of small glasses for your guests and assign each vodka a number (write it down). Pour vodka #1 into glass #1 and so on. Do this out of sight so your guests won’t know which vodka is in which glass.
  4. Pour the chilled vodka into the glasses and allow the vodka to become just slightly warmer (you don’t want to drink it freezing cold and you don’t want to drink it warm).

The Tasting

  1. Smell the vodka. Give your glass a swirl to help release the vodka’s aroma then take a sniff. Really take in what it smells like. Is it subtle or aggressive? Does it smell grainy, sweet, or worst case, like rubbing alcohol?
  2. Look at the vodka. After you swirl the glass, look at the vodka’s clarity and consistency (note how much it clings to the inside of the glass). Some vodkas will have a texture like water while others may be more creamy.
  3. Taste the vodka. Take a sip, hold the vodka in your mouth for a few seconds, breath out your nose, then swallow. Notice the texture. Is it smooth or harsh? Notice where on your tongue you taste and feel it most. Notice if the taste lingers or if it dissipates quickly.
  4. Repeat. In between tastings, clear your palette with a sip of water then try the next one.
  5. Rate them. Rank your preferences from favorite to least favorite, then reveal the vodka brands to the testers.

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