Absolut Terroir: Liquor Moguls Finally Make Vodka With Soul


Karlsson's Gold Vodka

Every year some 200 vodka brands hit the market worldwide. Most are gimmicks. There's one that comes bottled in a glass skull. There's one flavored with smoked salmon. There's one dyed black. Only two of those 200 live much beyond their first birthday. Can Karlsson's, an upstart brand from Sweden made from new potatoes, buck the trend?

Maybe. But only if it can buck another trend as well: the belief that good vodka has to be flavorless, colorless, and—to this whiskey fan, at least—soulless.

Underneath the marketing and food coloring, almost all vodkas are the same. They're made from grain, usually wheat or rye, and distilled until the taste and color are removed. Some are better than others, but there's no art to the process: the better the ingredients and the more thorough the distilling, the higher the premium. Partisans may swear there's a difference between Grey Goose and Ketel One, but really.

Karlsson's runs against the grain, so to speak, of vodka's obsession with purity. This is a dirty drink.

It wasn't always so. Before the 1960s very few people outside the "Vodka Belt"—Scandinavia, Russia, the Ukraine, Poland—drank the stuff at all, and regional differences predominated. In Sweden it was made mostly made from potatoes. Grains dominated in the steppes. And because purity wasn't as important, underlying flavors came through in the final product: vodka made outside Malmo tasted different from vodka made outside Stockholm, let alone Warsaw.

That all changed in the late 1970s, when Absolut, a state-owned brand from Sweden, got a makeover and started selling globally. Part of its marketing campaign, devised by the legendary Hans Brindfors (who later helped make IKEA a household name), was to emphasize purity over variety. The master blender, Borje Karlsson, switched the recipe from potatoes to winter wheat, which imparts a cleaner flavor. And Mr. Brindfors dressed it up in its now-iconic bottle, hiring artists to design ads that, within a few years, became de rigeur on the walls of college dorm rooms across America.

Absolut remained state-owned until 2008, when Sweden sold the brand to Pernod-Ricard for $9 billion. In the meantime, Absolut became one of the largest and most-recognized liquor brands in the world and the definition of high-quality vodka, averaging over 120 million bottles in worldwide annual sales. By then Mr. Brindfors and his marketing colleagues Olof Tranvik and Peter Ekelund were long gone. But a few years ago the trio got back together to give vodka-making another go. They're all obscenely wealthy men, and they could have spent a small fortune to bring out a wannabe Absolut—packaged, perhaps, in a bottle shaped like a half-naked Kim Kardashian.

Instead, in what can only be described as a rite of penance, they went local. Mr. Ekelund, who works for a private equity firm, also owns a farm in southern Sweden, and he understands what fluctuating food prices can do to small-time agriculture. So he approached his neighboring potato farmers with a plan: what about, instead of storing their excess produce, distilling it? They brought in Mr. Karlsson, the now-famous "father of Absolut," to develop a recipe, and a few years later—backed by Mr. Ekelund's fundraising, Mr. Tranvik's marketing skills, and Mr. Brindfors's branding genius—Karlsson's Gold was born.

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Karlsson's is in many ways the opposite of Absolut. "Success for us," Ekelund says, "will be to sell 100,000 cases in five years"—or about 240,000 bottles a year, or about two-tenths of 1 percent of what their former brand sells annually. "We actually have real physical limitations," Ekelund says. "Our fields could produce a maximum of 400,000 bottles annually." Mr. Brindfors's bottle is short and stout, shaped something like an oversized glass hand grenade. And Karlsson's marketing is entirely word-of-mouth—no Andy Warhol ads this time. The company has just 15 employees, and the participating farmers are all shareholders.

More important, Karlsson's runs against the grain, so to speak, of vodka's obsession with purity. This is a dirty drink: Mr. Karlsson uses a blend of five potato varieties, chosen for their flavor as well as their terroir. Yes, terroir: like grapes, potatoes bear the imprint of soil, moisture, water quality, and temperature. Karlsson's even brags that the region where the potatoes are grown, Cape Bjäre, "is to potatoes what France's Bordeaux region is to grapes." Perhaps. In any case, the result is a vodka with flavor—and not mandarin orange or salmon, but pleasantly nutty, spicy notes derived from the potatoes themselves.

Karlsson's will never replace Absolut, a fact that the three backers seem to relish. Its distinct flavor makes it a poor base for most vodka-friendly cocktails, though Mr. Ekelund likes it in a Bloody Mary. The best way to drink it, says Mr. Tranvik, is like whiskey: at room temperature, on the rocks, or with water. A bit of fresh-cracked pepper compliments it nicely. And then do what perhaps no one in America has done with a glass of vodka in 30 years: sip.

That's not likely to win over the vodka-and-Red-Bull crowd any time soon, though Karlsson's isn't interested in the mass market—for now. "There's no illusion that we don't have a long road ahead of us," Mr. Ekelund says. "But then, we believe that vodka will move to craft products. Otherwise, it gets boring. People like different things. You see that in beer—so why would someone behave differently when it comes to his liquor?"