There are many times, that people – and especially bartenders – try debasing white spirits by comparing them with vodka. “This rum smells like vodka” or “That white rum is a molassa vodka” or “gin is just a juniper flavored vodka” are common phrases of using vodka as “the underestimated” spirit. But how many things do we really know about vodka? Is finally vodka an indifferent spirit? Are all vodkas the same? Does it really matter which vodka one uses as a base spirit in a cocktail? And should bartenders show their “true love” in more “premium” vodkas?
Well, although I have spent half of my life serving drinks and using different vodkas in cocktails like: Sex on the Beach, Woo Woo, Harvey Wallbanger, Caipirovska, Bloody Mary, Seabreeze, Black or White Russian, Apple Martini, Vodkatini and Cosmopolitan, the truth is that I never was a “vodka lover”. At least, not until the day that we landed in Sweden in order to come closer to the crystal clear spirit, through the Absolut Akademi Pro, a 4 days educational, interactive and inspirational program, created for bartenders. Our guides to this knowledge trip were not simple human beings, but Dan Warner, Ben Reed, Jack Hubband and Miranda Barker. Here is what I saw and what I wrote down on my notebook. If you want, you may read these real facts and I am sure that it will make you reconsider appreciating vodka. Some quick but important historic facts first:
- 1405: First known use of the word vodka.
- 1498 : Licence to distil in Sweden
- 1871 : Lars Olsson Smith (Swedish spirits manufacturer and politician) installs a continuous still at Reimersholme
- 1906 : First distillery founded in Ahus, Sweden
- 1917 : Vin & Sprit established
- 1929 : A vintage copper still – known as column 51- is created
- 1979 : Absolut Vodka launches in New York and revolutionizes the vodka category. Michel Roux was a key person that you should also remember.
The first amazing thing that I learned in Sweden, is what Absolut calls ONE SOURCE which is the story of how Absolut Vodka is made as the entire process takes place in one region: the southern region of Sweden called Skane.
The grain that those guys plant and use is called Winter Wheat. Winter Wheat arrives at the distillery, it undergoes constant quality checks and then it is milled in order to become flour.
The next step that happens inside the facilities of Pernod Ricard is Mashing: enzymes are being used to convert the large starch molecules in the flour into sugars. Then, a specific strain of yeast is added and fermentation begins.
The result is a liquid wash (you could call it beer if you like) which is then distilled inside big column stills. This first distillation phase produces a raw spirit of 85% abv, which must be rectified. Rectification process is followed by dilution with water (Absolut utilises one of the most pristine water sources in the world) and then filtration. The final thing that has to be done is bottling. Absolut has the capacity to fill 600.000 bottles per day! The bottles get into cases and then into pallets. 80% of them are shipped by sea from Ahus harbour, mostly to Germany. The remaining pallets are transported to Rotterdam or Gothenburg, from where they are shipped on.
The next day, we were driven to Ahus, where Absolut Elyx is produced. Elyx, is made exclusively with winter wheat from a single estate called Rabelof. The first raw distillate (for which you have read a few lines above) is transferred in Column 51, a unique, traditional single column continuous distillation unit made of copper. The copper surfaces inside the column have a catalytic effect on the spirit, adding a highly prized and a silky texture as well as subtle savoury notes.
Of course, we visited the place were Absolut vodka becomes flavored and we learnt many important things about all the complex process of aromatisation, maybe on of the most important thing in our lives…