PRESTIGE SELECTION TOUR #4: ABSOLUT ELYX
Last stop of the tour is a trip to Åhus, Sweden, the home of Absolut Vodka. Together with Berlin-based bartender Andreas Künster and Master Distiller Krister Asplund we take a look behind the scenes of the elegant copper-still vodka Absolut Elyx and go where the wheat is grown to make it. Join us in southern Sweden!
“Hi, I’m Krister”. These are the first words from the tall Swede with cobalt-blue eyes who greets us, his words wrapped in a wonderful Nordic accent. There’s a light but steady rain coming down as we stand on the dock at Åhus’ small harbor. The wind is cool and the breeze from the rough waters of the Baltic Sea, a mere stone’s throw away, has us pulling up our coat collars sooner than Krister can take us inside where it’s warm and cozy.
A HEART OF COPPER
Getting to the heat in this case means first walking through two small, narrow winding alleyways between red-orange brick buildings and up three steps to Krister Asplund’s “holy of holies”: the building known here as “Spirit Church”, where the cold suddenly gives way to a toasty 30°+ C. After this initial shock comes the next one, as we stretch our necks, open-mouthed in awe at the three-storey tall wood paneled copper column still. At its base, Master Distiller Krister proudly tells us about Absolut Elyx.
Krister takes a deep breath and then tells us, “At the moment we’re not distilling any Elyx”. He explains that the latest wheat harvest from last August and September has already been completely distilled and is now resting before the first batches are bottled in January and February of 2016. He continues, “Anyway, we only distill Elyx for three to four weeks a year”. But when they do, it’s round-the-clock.
During that period a good ten people are needed to keep the process running smoothly. Because as astonishing as it might seem, the computers and sophisticated measuring equipment you find as a matter of course at virtually all of today’s distilleries are nowhere to be found at the birthplace of Absolut Elyx, the vodka featured in Pernod Ricard’s Prestige Selection. Master Distiller Krister Asplund smiles as he tells us, “It’s all about having the right touch”. We would add to that a whole lot of experience with this copper colossus as well, built in 1921 in Germany’s Saxony region town of Grimma.
FOR THEY KNOW WHAT THEY DO
As we look around we begin to discover other devices and measuring equipment originating from Germany, so what’s the story behind this? “The Germans simply used to be the best distillers”, explains Krister, almost lovingly stroking the “Spirit Safe” from the German city of Bochum. It turns out he’s read innumerable German books on the subject over the course of his 30+ years of distilling with Absolut, and he regards their information on the roots of the art of distillation as indispensable. This goes not just for the machinery, but also for the theory and practice of the craft itself. “It’s pretty easy to distill a clear, pure alcohol. The art is ultimately getting rid of the undesirable flavor notes and hanging onto the ones you want”, Krister explains, elaborating on the work he dedicates to Absolut Elyx, which relies on constant contact with copper for its characteristic taste. He assures us that the kind of “perfuming” with minimum amounts of flavor essences practiced by other producers has no place here. “We only want the pure, subtle nature of the vodka. For everything else we already have our flavored varieties.”
Like the classic Absolut Vodka, the flavored versions are all bottled right next door, around the clock, to the tune of 125 million bottles a year. This breakneck pace requires an entire trailer-truck full of empty bottles every two hours to keep up with demand. And the only place in the world where Absolut spirits are distilled and filled into their iconic bottles is here in Åhus. This is part of the “One-Source Policy” Krister likes to cite when talking about his product.
But we’re eager to find out whether this policy is actually still relevant, given that many other producers create and bottle their spirits at several locations around the world to make the logistical most of today’s globalized market.
Krister responds, “I absolutely get that to a certain degree. But our standard is different. From an environmental standpoint, our One-Source Policy is simply more sustainable. And that’s important these days”. The company’s plans call for all of its production and logistics processes to be 80 percent climate-neutral by 2020, and for sustainable projects such as the large-scale planting of trees and elephant grass to already be implemented by then. It’s easy to see that this is a matter close to Krister’s heart as he emphasizes, “Yes, for my part I can only defend the One-Source Policy decision and the demand for regional production, especially today”.
SWEDISH COUNTRY OUTING
To give us a better idea of what he’s talking about, Krister drives us out a good half-an-hour along Sweden’s country byways until we turn onto a dirt road in the middle of “absolutely” nowhere. Råbelöf Castle stands on a slight crest above us, a centuries-old estate surrounded by dozens of hectares of land divided up into fields, forests, meadows and a lake. Krister introduces us to Erik Baeksted, Råbelöf’s farmer and a born Dane. Together they seem more like best friends than business partners, despite the complicated history between their ancient ancestors. Like Krister, Erik also possesses great charm and a natural Nordic air far warmer than the local climate. He leads us a few feet further into a field planted with small green plants with shoots sticking six centimeters or so out of the muddy, rain-soaked ground. Erik wears rubber boots. We, on the other hand, didn’t think about that.
A QUESTION OF THE TERROIR
He tells us we’re standing in the middle of the 2016 harvest. The wheat for Absolut Vodka comes from all over southern Sweden, but the winter wheat for Elyx from which this special vodka takes its name is grown and harvested only in this field. “Thanks to our climate we’re able to harvest around one kilogram of wheat per square meter”, says Erik while sort of sketching out the corresponding area with his arms. The one kilogram of wheat in turn yields pretty much precisely one liter of vodka.
Erik provides a comparative basis and explains, “The wheat in Germany receives more warmth, and that makes it better for making bread. Wheat from England on the other hand is good as animal feed. The quality and yield of our wheat is right in the middle, making it perfect for alcohol production”. But a consistent climate, ample precipitation (avoiding the necessity of irrigation) and mineral-rich soil are not the whole formula. As few pesticides as possible are used to cultivate the wheat here, opting instead for perfecting how fertilizers are used and only adding what’s really necessary. After all, the standard for Absolut Elyx is high, a common thread running from its taste through to the packaging and the distilling process, and right down to the individual wheat grain. Krister sums up this approach by saying, “With everything that’s in a bottle of Elyx, I know how it’s made and where it comes from – within a 25-kilometer radius of the distillery”.
THE FRUITS OF SUCCESS
But does all this effort really pay off? The road to the current product was also long, and it is designed to be anything but a new version of the former premium product Absolut Level, which has now been discontinued. The coordination and methodology for Elyx is simply more detailed. One example of this is how Elyx has recently been upgraded to 42.3% ABV. Krister casually explains, “We simply weren’t satisfied with the initial level of 40 ABV, so we worked our way up until we were”.
In his eyes, the attention to detail given to Absolut Elyx definitely pays off. The true test for this family-man and downhill skiing enthusiast was the fact that he was never a fan of the classic vodka martini; that is, until he tried one with Elyx. Now he’s genuinely pleased when others feel the same way. He confesses, “As a distiller it just makes me happy when people try my product and their first sip puts a smile on their face”.
Translation by J.J. Collier.