Finally, A Vodka With Soul
on 03/02/11 at 5:11 pmSpirits
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.
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.