Over the past decade, Absolut became more synonymous with college parties and dance club bottle service than with its artistically-inclined, sustainably-minded Swedish roots. This shift in reputation is undoubtedly a repercussion of its ubiquitous worldwide popularity, which reached a fever pitch when Absolut became the discerning bartender's vodka—if not spirit—of choice in the late '80s and remained so throughout the '90s, shortly after it was globally exported for the first time in 1979.
It's not surprising Absolut fell into major favor upon hitting the shelves of top-tier bars in the UK and US; the spirit was essentially a project 100 years in the making. When Lars Olsson Smith created what was then called Absolut Rent Bränvin (which translates to Absolute Pure Vodka) in 1879, he quickly became revered as an industry pioneer for using a continuous distillation process in which the vodka is purified 10 times without interruption. This method enables Absolut to meticulously remove impurities without losing all of the flavor. They still uses the same rectification process and recipe today at their massive distillery in Åhus where, on a recent visit, we had a chance to learn more about the brand's production methods, history, and their newly launched product, Absolut Elyx.
While Elyx is definitively an even more refined vodka—intended for sipping neat—the two vodkas are both products of a company extremely committed to intense quality control, environmental efficiency and the strict use of raw, local materials. A trip to the main Absolut distillery really allows you to see how they keep the flavor profile exactly the same for each of the 600,000 liters produced every day; an effort they call "One Source" for their continued use of the same pristine water (which they drill nearly 400 feet underground to retrieve fresh every minute from an aquifer) and the same winter wheat cleaned the same way bought from the same farmers year after year. Even the glass bottles—a design inspired by 18th century Swedish medicine bottles—are crafted close to Åhus, and are rinsed with Absolut before being taken to the bottling center down the road from the distillery. This close proximity and riverside location not only allow Absolut to keep transportation costs down but, more importantly, it saves on energy; a major concern for the company and one the rest of the Pernod Ricard family learns from and eventually emulates.
A visit to the Elyx distillery offers a glimpse at Absolut's origins. Each of the rectification columns in the single-batch facility are handmade, forged from copper and date back to 1921. The spirit passes through four different columns which contain over 250 "plates" and copper surfaces within the columns react with trace compounds in the spirit, adding character while removing impurities. The entire continuous distillation process is done without the aid of computers, and only a select few people have been deemed masters of their craft and are in charge of overseeing Elyx's production.
The copper columns and personal attention to the Elyx distillation process would be reason enough for its supreme taste, but the main factor is really the winter wheat. The winter wheat for classic Absolut is gathered from several farms around Skåne in southern Sweden, but Elyx is made with a higher quality winter wheat from a single estate, the Råbelöf Estate, for the utmost in controlled character. The farm manager at Råbelöf, a Dane with extensive agricultural know-how, oversees the wheat planting in the autumn and subsequent harvesting the following autumn (it's this year-long dormant period that gives it such a robust flavor) and he also hand-selects the wheat to ensure every yield is up to Absolut's strict standards.
From our first sip to our last drop of Elyx over the week we spent with it and the Absolut team in Sweden, the vodka remained an immense pleasure to drink on its own, in a cocktail or paired with a variety of foods—from pickled fish to moose meat. Its silky smoothness, mellow aroma and nutty taste are uniquely palatable. As explained by Absolut on our tour of the distillery, they strongly adhere to their motto "We do everything unnecessarily good." With every Absolut team member we met and every process we were shown, this mantra rang true. Elyx is just the latest example of such dedication.
Elyx is now available at high-end retailers around the US and sells for $49 a bottle.
See more images from our time at both the Absolut and Elyx distilleries in the slideshow below. Product shot by Graham Hiemstra, all other photos by Karen Day.