Monday, April 1, 2013

Absolut Vodka - Distillery Tour

A few weeks back, I hopped on a plane to visit the Absolut Vodka facilities in Sweden.  I had been very much looking forward to this trip being that I'm a big fan of all things spirits, but honestly didn't know too much about vodka (embarrassing, I know).  Suddenly, I had an opportunity to learn more about vodka behind the scenes at not only one of the world's largest alcohol companies, but a company that has a larger mission towards quality, sustainability, and design.

I flew into Copenhagen, and although I had been told that I must seek out one of their famous hotdogs, it would have to wait.  We were off to Kristianstad - about an hour and a half South East of Copenhagen. 
We finally found our hotel the Tomarps Gårdshotell, a charming farm house at the end of a picturesque winding road flanked by impressive estates, orchards, and pastures filled with horses and goats.  After a short nap, we headed down for lunch, a gorgeous piece of cod dotted with roe, oyster foam, a roasted tomato, and those famous Swedish potatoes (which they deserve a romantic ode to their buttery sweetness). 

Lunch: Cod with Roe, Oyster Foam, Roasted Tomatoes, Prawns, and Buttery Potatoes
No time for rest, we were off to visit Absolut's impressive facilities in Nöbbelöv.  At first glance, it's clear that there's a lot of vodka made in this building.  It's a massive industrial facility with the stills standing triumphantly outside.

Absolut Distillery
Let's go through some numbers.  The Absolut distillery has capacity to produce 50 million liters at 96% ABV, and every day 600,000 liters of Absolut are produced.  That, dear readers, is a lot of vodka.

Absolut is made from winter wheat sourced from farms surrounding Nöbbelöv, a specific yeast made in Stockholm that is unique to Absolut, and local water that is collected from wells surrounding the distillery.  The water is treated on site through a reverse-osmosis process that softens the water prior to distillation.  All of the elements that go into making Absolut are controlled throughout the process, and are uniquely found in Absolut - a level of control that is impressive and frankly mind-boggling when considering the enormous scale of the production. 

Wind Turbines & Winter Wheat Fields
Absolut has a ratio of 1 kilo wheat to 1 liter of vodka, so 600,000 kilos of wheat are required for production every day, which should give you an idea of the massive amount of wheat required daily to make the world's supply of vodka annually.  Additionally, Absolut has a focused mission towards sustainability - all materials that can be recycled are, and production processes are constantly streamlined for efficiency and environmental friendliness.

Storage Silos
Local wheat is brought in on trucks, milled on site, and then made into mash.  The mash contains water and enzymes, which start the process of converting the wheat into sugars.  The mash is cooled with river water to 37 degrees C, and then transferred into fermentation tanks.  More yeast is added, and it is left to sit for 48 hours.  This is when the sugars are converted to our friend, alcohol.   

One Day's Production of Absolut Vodka, 600,000 Liters of Fermenting Mash

The mash then heads to the distillation stills, where it is heated, and passed through a number of different steel column stills with copper plates.  Finally, the vodka is filtered once through a mesh filter.  Absolut uses continuous distillation, a process that has been used since the days of Tiodubbelt Renadt Brännvin in 1879.

Distillation Stills Back
Distillation Stills Front
What exactly is Tiodubbelt Renadt Brännvin, you ask?  It was the original company started by Lars Olsson Smith which used fractional distillation to remove the fusel alcohols (we'll get more to this later).  The name was later changed to Absolut Rent Brännvin and was owned by the Swedish government.  In 1979 ABSOLUT VODKA was released in the US, and with the iconic marketing ads (you remember them, you collected them) Absolut quickly became arguably the first spirits lifestyle brand. 

So, for the vodka novice, perhaps the question is, what makes a good vodka?  Certainly, it's the quality of all of the ingredients that go into the mix, in addition to the process of distillation.  Absolut prides itself on it's One Source methods - a controlled process from the source of the wheat to the water to the final bottled product. 

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the different flavors profiles found in vodka, namely Absolut, lets break it down.  Absolut is a vodka that tastes primarily of wheat, it has a bread-y baritone flavor with slight citrus notes.  Side note, it was kind of amazing - at lunch the next day, I sat down with my lunch, took a bite of the bread (made from the same local winter wheat) and I swear it tasted like Absolut.  Let them eat Vodka Bread, I say! 

After the distillery, we took a tour of the bottling facility.  Which was a wonka-esque factory with impressive machines that rapidly sorted, filled, and packaged the bottles into cases, which are then placed into palletes, and shipped off to distributors and vodka drinkers worldwide.  The operating line was fast paced and extremely impressive in scale.

Selfie - In Bubble
Bottles Getting Ready for Filling
If Something Fails on the Line - These Bottles Keep Moving
All of the machines are designed, made, and maintained by Absolut personnel, so they are able to fully understand any flaws in the system and design them to be better, faster, and more efficient.  Or, to program them to behave anyway they choose - in fact the Absolut Unique project was executed through algorithms and special programing of the machines in this bottling facility.

Bottle Buddies
One of the Few Humans I saw - Watching for Bottle Defects
Absolut Motto: Onödigt Bra - Unnecessarily Good
Amazingly enough, when the bottles are rinsed before filling they use vodka as to not disrupt the purity of the finally bottled spirit.  Which is exactly how I want to bathe for the rest of my life, in vodka.

Once bottled and packed safely into boxes, the boxes are packed into palettes, and then moved into an awe-inspiring storing facility that is 22 meters by 270 meters total by 11 levels of pallets high.  Pallets are scanned, picked up by automated cranes, moved (quite rapidly) along their storage bay, and then stored away.  All without any humans around.  Amazingly enough, this massive storage space houses one month of production for Absolut before it's shipped around the world!

One Month's Supply of Absolut - Ready for the World!
The entire day was very wonka - the few people I did see were on the floor of the bottling facility.  Either there are oompa loompas making this vodka hidden from sight, or this is an extremely well engineered automated system (I'm going with the later).

And then we were off to the Clubhouse at Kippers for cocktail hour, where we were sipping on Sea Breezes!  Not bad, indeed.  We also got a taste of the new bespoke spirits project, Absolut Craft, created by Nick Strangeway.  The Craft line will be trade only, so you will have to venture out to your favorite bars to get your hands on it.

Terrible Photo, Amazing Vodka

Let me say, this stuff is insanely good.  For all the things I've grown to despise about flavored vodka (um, birthday cake vodka) Craft makes up for it in spades with its complexity of flavors.  The Herbacious Lemon does not have any citrus in it at all, instead infusions of lemongrass, lemon myrtle, and lemon thyme.  There's also Bitter Cherry and Smokey Tea to make your mouth water just a little bit more.  It's delicious AND it's served up with a gorgeous rift on the iconic Absolut bottle - a smoky gray glass with new handsome logos that make these bottles extra lust worthy

Tune in next time, when we get to taste Absolut's new project, Absolut Elyx, their premium vodka that is especially delicious.   Spoiler alert: We drank a lot of it.


Want more?

Absolut Elyx Distillery Tour - The new Absolut Vodka (and it's delicious).
The Ice Hotel - Dog Sleds, Ice Bars, and Reindeer Fillets
Stockholm - The Art and Design of Absolut Vodka

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