Understanding Vodka – Part III: Scandinavian Design

When I first visited Stockholm in 2004 I was completely taken aback by the clean architecture and stark landscape of the city – glass and metal abound, reflecting both the deep blue waters of Riddarfjärden and the brooding greys of the clouds above. The propensity to use science and technology in conjunction with nature is something I greatly admire and it's a Swedish trait that seems to extend beyond architecture and into distillation as well. Absolut vodka's 2013 Elyx release, for example, utilized stunning packaging, state of the art distillation, and locally-sourced, responsibly-grown wheat from a historic farm more than 600 years old. Most of the furniture in my house is from IKEA, so maybe I'm just unconsciously biased, but it seems like Sweden really understands how to design things in a stylish, yet forward-thinking manner.

The Absolut Elyx was recently awarded the title of "best vodka in the world" at the 2013 San Francisco Spirits Competition. That's a pretty heavy accolade. Having tasted it along side other Polish, Russian, and American vodkas, I don't disagree that it stands out above the crowd. Why is it, however, that the Elyx shines not only brighter than other Absolut products, but also than the most highly-regarded Eastern European vodkas in production? That's what I asked Absolut this week and here's what I found out about their production.

Traditional European vodka distillation has always centered around which grains were readily available. Polish vodka is traditionally rye-based because rye was the dominant grain for the region, as was wheat in Russia. Wheat and barley were the grains of choice in Sweden (explaining the vibrant beer culture in the region). Wheat has been sown in southern Sweden for centuries, specifically winter wheat, which is specifically suited for growing in the Skåne region. Absolut has relationships with approximately 450 farms across the region and in an average year about 300 of these farms will supply the wheat that is used to make Absolut Vodka. The wheat used to make Absolut accounts for around 20% of the total wheat production for the whole region. This is approximately 125,000 tons per year. A selection of wheat is made from a list of seven varieties which is reviewed each year. In 2012 these varieties were Audi, Skalmeje, Olivin, Cubus, Opus, Oakley and Boomer. With the Elyx, however, Absolut decided to source all the winter wheat sourced from a single estate called Råbelöf (located 15 miles from the distillery) that has been growing wheat since the 1400s.

It's important to stress here that, unlike most American vodka distilleries, Absolut is handling every step of the process themselves. They grow their own wheat, mill it and mash it, perform their own fermentation, and perform each distillation personally. Very, very few vodka companies can claim this level of ownership over the production process. They're more than willing to share information about this process as well. Take a look at what they told me:

From the moment the grain arrives at the distillery it undergoes constant quality checks and even when it is milled, the flour is checked to ensure it is of the correct particle size. The wheat is thoroughly checked to ensure it meets the required standards for Absolut, this includes:

– Check on water content (no more than 14%).

– Other particles (no more than 0.3%) specific density.

– Mold traces.

– Starch content (<69%).

– Bacterial and mold toxins.

– Heavy metals.

– Test conducted to ensure no pesticides, dioxins or arsenic are present.

As a further precaution, the wheat is also emptied into a large cleaning facility which sieves the wheat and vacuums up any dust particles before being placed in a large storage silo outside of the main distillery building. The wheat is then blown via an underground passage and then up to a hopper on the roof of the distillery. The wheat then passes down to the mill inside the distillery where it is milled to a maximum size of 1.5mm. The flour from the mill falls down to a sizing machine where any particles larger than 1.5mm are returned to the mill and ground to a finer size.

 The flour is ground to this specific size to ensure that 100% of the starch is available to be converted into sugars during the mashing process. The mashing process uses enzymes to convert the large starch molecules in the flour into simple sugars, which can be fermented by the yeast. The milled wheat is then mixed with water from the distillery’s own well and is pumped into the first of three stainless steel mashing tanks. This water is from the same source as the water used to dilute the vodka. However it has only been sand filtered to remove iron and still contains other minerals.

In the first tank the water and flour mixture (mash) has a liquefaction enzyme added to break the starch granules into longer chain polysaccharides and heated to 95 degrees Celsius to help the process and pasteurize the mash. It passes continuously through the 3 tanks constantly being heated and cooled. As the mash enters the fermentation tank more water is added and a second saccharification enzyme; this converts the long chain polysaccharides molecules into simple sugars and also cools the mash to 35 degrees Celsius, a temperature at which the yeast can survive. The heat recovered from the fermentation process is recycled to help drive the heating during the mashing process.

Nöbbelöv, Absolut's distillery, has 10 massive stainless steel fermentation tanks, each with a capacity of 600,000 liters. The tanks are made from stainless steel as this helps ensure the strict hygiene standards are met during cleaning and maintenance. The yeast is a specific strain, only used to make Absolut. It is supplied as dried yeast, blended with water and then gets added to the tanks where it spends the first 8 hours or so growing and multiplying. After approximately eight hours the yeast starts working on the sugars in the mash, converting them into alcohol and giving off carbon dioxide. After 48 hours the fermented mash has an alcohol content of about 10% abv.

Wow! That's a lot of technical talk! I've never really asked anyone about how wheat is milled and fermented before being distilled, so it's great to finally get some insight into the process. Also, take a look at what a grain distillery looks like. There's a reason Scotland only has a few of these in operation and why most distilleries don't produce grain whisky – they're gigantic!. Driving by Girvan is no different – efficient grain distilleries have huge column stills that look like factories. Now that we understand the process of Absolut in general, we still need to know what makes the Elyx different from the standard Absolut. We already know that the Elyx is made from single estate wheat, but how does the production differ?

I talked to Chris Patino, the director of brand education for the company, for some clarification. He told me that the first difference is the copper. If you're unfamiliar with copper's role in distillation, most pot stills are made out of copper because it helps pull the sulphurous notes out from the spirit (it's also why some people drop old copper pennies in their wine if too much sulphur was used in the bottling). The initial distillation for the Elyx is done at Nöbbelöv, where the vapors of all Absolut vodka are run through a bed of copper during this process. That copper, however, is not changed throughout the day as new batches are introduced into the still. Every time a fresh batch of Elyx is distilled, however, the copper is also fresh. The first run of Elyx brings it from a 10% wheat wort up to about 50% ABV.

From there, that raw Elyx spirit is transported to the old Absolut distillery that is still fully operational. Apparently, Nöbbelöv is shut down for a few weeks out of the year for cleaning and inspection and during that time the "old distillery," as it is literally referred to, as becomes the hub. The still at the "old distillery" was controlled in 1920 by the Swedish government who monopolized distillation at that time. Much like the grape farmers in Armagnac, the wheat, potato, and barley farmers could bring their excess grains to the "old distillery" and use the government still to produce their own spirit, paying the proper fees and taxation during the process. These spirits were called brännvin (burnt wine), of which vodka was considered the highest quality. The old still at the "old distillery" is five stories high, made entirely of copper, and is completely manual. It requires three or four guys to operate a series of cranks and pullies and the power is generated from an old steam belt. The rest is gravity!

The old still at the old distillery is where the rectification for Elyx is done. Because of the limited capacity of the old still, Absolut Elyx is distilled in batches, which are then blended together to create the final product. The result is a creamy spirit with a distilled water-like purity that stands among some of the best vodkas I've ever tasted. The package is also incredible, with its 1960s art-deco look allowing me to make believe I'm Roger Sterling with the bottle on my desk. The overall product is exactly what I think of when I think of my visit to Stockholm – a clean, beautiful, striking experience that's modernly-designed, yet conscious of nature and history.

Is it the best vodka in the world? Maybe. But I've still got more work to do.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll