Visiting A Vodka Distillery Might Just Change Your Mind About The ‘Neutral Spirit’

“That’s Krister Asplund,” Absolut Elyx brand ambassador Teresa Cesario whispered to me. “He’s made more vodka than anyone else on earth.”

Asplund has been making vodka for Absolut for over 30 years. I was hanging out with him to learn about his latest creation: A single grain vodka made from a single farm in full Midsommar-vibes Sweden. As a longtime bartender, I have to admit: I was hyped. Not just to taste Asplund’s beloved Elyx but also to permanently put to bed the way-too-popular theory that vodka is less complex than every other spirit.

With years of experience in Berlin’s best bars, I know vodka is more complicated than people realize. Well, let’s correct that. Good vodka is complicated. At its best, the spirit is a literal and figurative distillation of terroir, grains, and expertise in the nose and on the tongue. But over the years vodka has been relegated to a sort of “neutral-to-the-point-of-tasteless” status. It’s thought of as the boring spirit that anyone can drink without getting offended, to the point that “it tastes like nothing” became part of the pitch.

The vodka is a blank canvas myth was compounded over the years by flavored vodkas taking up more and more shelf space, adding fuel to the fire of vodka having no discernable flavor on its own. But even a novice drinker should recognize this fallacy. Brands of vodka like Absolut or Stolichnaya have a distinct flavor on the palate, just like any grain spirit, and have not changed their recipes in over 100 years. Still, the chance to follow around a distiller whose goals were making a vodka that people could savor felt like it might arm me with definitive proof that vodka is more than just neutral.

Via Hudghton Photography

My journey began on a farm with Asplund, where winter wheat is grown. The late summer farmland glistened, though the sky was stark silver. Asplund alighted from his car and waited for us — a gaggle of booze journalists all slightly hungover from the previous night’s bacchanalia — to gather around. We were standing on the famed Råbelöf Estate, a place that’s been growing winter wheat since the 1400s.

Methodically, Asplund began his speech about this winter wheat. He talked about hulls, chaffs, planting cycles, the soil composition, water, weather. He looked at the vast field of golden grass in a state of unrehearsed awe. Or at least that’s how I perceived it. Here, in front of us, were the building blocks of a great vodka — the terroir, the climate, the ancient agriculture.

“Soon,” Asplund explained, “this lovely grain will be lovely vodka … Let’s go see how we do that!”

We drove into Åhus, where Absolut distills their high-end line of vodka aptly named Absolut Elyx (pronounced “ee-lix”). As someone who writes about booze all day, I’ve been on my fair share of distillery tours. I know the #brandspeak and the marketing rigamarole by heart. “There’s the mill for the grain” … “Here’s where we ferment with yeast” … “There are the stills” … “This is where we make the cut” … “Here’s the bottling machine” … “Let’s drink.”

That’s the gist. Add some flowery words and tell a story of a lost-then-found recipe and you’re good to go.

This tour was that, sure, but it was more earnest than most. Absolut Elyx is clearly Asplund’s legacy product and he brings his three decades of knowledge to bear in every part of the process. Much of that means having the patience to not get in the way of time-honored traditions. Those grains are grown with centuries of heritage before they’re milled by a nearly 100-year-old piece of antique machinery. The fermenting tanks and stills are also nearly 100-years-old. The antique copper, Asplund believes, imbues a uniqueness to the spirit.

As the tour concluded, Asplund took his leave and the bartenders/brand ambassadors took over, with our crew of writers filing into a stylishly appointed bar for a tasting. It was the “let’s drink” part of the tour — the moment of truth. Yes, all those wheat fields, tweaks, and antiques are great, but what’s in the bottle that counts, right?

As someone who does a lot of tastings, I usually have a baseline that I’m looking for with a spirit. But with vodka, that baseline is a bit of a moving target because it can be made, technically, with any agricultural product. Rye, potatoes, wheat, corn, hell, even grapes (Ciroc). That means you’re going to get a lot of variance in what your building blocks are going to be. With winter wheat vodkas like Elyx, I was seeking hints of spice, nuttiness, and some sense of the grain itself.

Via Hudghton Photography

My first sip opened up with a clear rush of the winter wheat with almost a hint of a damp rainy day in summer. There was a distant echo of a freshly baked loaf of bread that led towards a buttery velvet texture. White chocolate and macadamia fattiness came into play while hints of wheat spiciness helped the sip pop. Finally, there was a sense of that fresh bread again, this time covered in butter with an echo of nutmeg. There was no burn and it was definitely not neutral.

Just like with a good whiskey, you had to think about this spirit. You had to talk it out, sip some more, and talk some more until the flavors fully revealed themselves. It was a process, but a fun one.

Next, we got to stir up our own Dry Martinis under the tutelage of legendary bartender Nick Strangeway. Strangeway’s energy was wholly different from Asplund’s measured Swedish nature. The former is an Englishman who looks you dead in the eye as he breaks down how good vermouth blends its botanicals with the terroir and grain notes in a good vodka. His speech flowed as he measured, stirred, and poured.

“Ten to one, vodka to vermouth is how I like it,” Strangeway explained of his martini recipe. “That doesn’t have to be how you like it, though.” Then he dove deep into which vermouth to use. His favorite is Lillet Blanc. It’s citrusy, vinous, bitter, floral — the building blocks for a martini that counterpointed Elyx’s nuttiness and spicy nature.

After a little more explanation, Strangeway slid a copper coupe brimming with his martini over my way. The drink was a delight. It arrived wonderfully chilled. The spiciness of the vodka with those buttery notes shone through and built upon the florals, citrus, and quinine of the Lillet.

We tasted and we talked. At some point, I was invited to make my own martini riff. With each interpretation of Martini or watering (drops of water and ice) of the vodka, more nuance came forward. This is what truly makes a great product — growth, depth, a sense of place, and a feeling of discovering something new in an old spirit. The idea that this vodka should be or could be tasteless or “neutral” felt almost absurd by the time our tasting ended.

“When people drink vodka,” Asplund said to me later, “they expect it to be flavorless. That’s not what we’re doing here. That’s not something that I ever wanted to do or be a part of.”

With Elyx, the most premier product in his line, he’s thoroughly proven this point.

Via Hudghton Photography

Uproxx was hosted for this story by Absolut Elyx. However, they did not review or approve this story. You can learn more about the Uproxx Press Trip policy here.

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