PURITY MEETS PURITANISM
Located around the Baltic Sea, the Scandinavian and Baltic countries developed the art of distilling spirits from grains and potatoes at the same time as the rest of Northern Europe. In these countries, however, the term “vodka” is more restrictive than it is in Poland or Russia; it is mostly used to designate transparent spirits with little or no flavouring that are highly rectified, like the Swedish brand Absolut. Other types, made in a more traditional way, are usually called brännvin (burnt wine) or akvavit (eau-de-vie). These different names are an expression of national identity, but the products themselves are very similar.
Highly appreciated in such rough climates, these spirits became extremely popular, and at one point most households had their own stills. A high level of alcohol consumption was encouraged by the low cost of the alcohol, leading to a puritanical reaction in the nineteenth century. State monopolies were set up for both production and importing, as well as for the distribution of alcoholic beverages, which was not the case in most other places. It wasn’t until the end of the twentieth century that the countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain rediscovered a certain degree of freedom in terms of distilling, as in other domains.
In Sweden, the first mention of spirits appeared in the fifteenth century with the use of the term brännvin, which etymologically means “burnt wine”. These were mostly medicinal potions, probably with a low alcohol content, that were very costly because the wine had to be imported from more southerly countries. A document dating from the time explains that brännvin could cure at least forty different afflictions, including migraine headaches, lice, kidney stones, toothaches, and female sterility. flavoured or spiced versions were also know as akvavit, from the Latin aqua vitae, or “water of life”.
Curiously, brännvin was also used to produce cannon powder, as reported in an accounting ledger dating from 1467. The first known license for the production and distribution of alcohol was accorded in 1498 to a certain Corth Flaskedragare in exchange for providing the government with supplies to make cannon powder. But brännvin’s use as a beverage had already began to spread, and the authorities were beginning to get nervous about it. Anyone caught selling brännvin for another use was subject to prosecution.
The Swedes, like all the natives of the Baltic nations, knew about the existence of “strong waters”, brought to their countries by the Dutch and Germans of the Hanseatic League.
With the perfecting of the stills and the growing use of grains (much cheaper than wine) as a raw material, the distillation of spirits began to increase beginning in the seventeenth century.
At the time, especially during the reign of Gustav Adolph II (1611-1632), Sweden had attained a great level of power in Europe, dominating the entire Baltic region and fighting wars on Russian territory. It was perhaps during one of these military incursions that the term “vodka” was adopted. It was used only for transparent, unflavoured spirits made of grain.
Even though it brought in increasing tax revenues to the state, the growth of brännvin also worried the authorities. In 1863, the governor of the northern province of Sweden wrote a report that “both soldiers and farmers are attracted by the drinking of brännvin, and are thus ruining their health and their wellbeing, neglecting both their work and their military service”. A century later, the celebrated botanist Carl von Linné also took on brännvin, saying that it had “the same effect as the lash of a whip on a mare: It makes her react immediately, but does nothing to increase her Strength”.
Nonetheless, by the middle of the eighteenth century, there was about one still for every ten inhabitants of Sweden. Every family and farm had its own for a good reason: while consumption in city cabarets was taxed, home production was still duty-free. The home-made alcohols varied greatly, and local languages had different terms for each type of spirit, according to the occasion on which it was drunk: while hunting, fishing, travelling, or even before going to bed.
At the same time that Protestant Puritanism was leaning toward increasing control over the daily lives of the people, a series of poor grain harvests led the authorities to ban home distilling in order to save the wheat and barley for foodstuffs. Around 180,000 stills were seized in the country in 1756. A state monopoly was set up for the production, sale, and import of spirits and other alcoholic beverages. Thirty official distilleries went into production.
But, as elsewhere, these measures led to an increase in clandestine distilling, to the consternation of the authorities, who regularly reaffirmed the monopoly under pressure especially from the Swedish Temperance Society, founded in 1837 by Puritans. Home production was once again completely forbidden in 1860, but in the meantime, technological progress had already greatly reduced the number of stills being used, which dropped from 173,000 in 1829 to 33,000 in 1853, and 564 in 1860. Improving methods allowed the making of spirits of better quality at a lower cost. The first continuous stills were installed near Stockholm by Lars Olsson Smith, the creator of the famous Absolut vodka (see the following chapter) in 1869.
The civil and religious authorities did not, however, give up the fight against alcoholism, which reached its heights after World War I with the creation of Vin&Sprit. Production and sales of spirits were concentrated in this monopoly, the exclusive sales outlet for all alcohol. Heavy taxes hiked up prices and, for many years, consumers had ration books to keep track of their purchases of alcoholic beverages. Even American Prohibition did not go that far in the fight against alcoholism.
It was only when they left their country that the Swedes could easily consume alcohol, which perhaps explains the popularity of tours of Southern Europe after World War II.
In spite of all that, Vin&Sprit developed great savoir-faire when it came to distilling and made spirits of excellent quality. Some imitations of foreign beverages like brandy, cognac, or calvados were occasionally even judged superior to the originals during blind tastings.
THE END OF THE MONOPOLY
While Sweden remained neutral during the two world wars and spent decades constructing its unique welfare state, it could not remain isolated indefinitely. In 1995, the country joined the European Union.
Membership in this open economic system meant that the Vin & Sprit monopoly could no longer continue. The group, now subject to national and international competition, shut down its distribution subsidiary, Provinum, and concentrated on two companies: Vin&Sprit Norden for the production and distribution of foreign spirits and wines, and Absolut Compagny for the manufacture and sales of Swedish vodka.
The competition in distribution was felt immediately, especially for wine, and the net sales of this branch dropped by two-thirds between 1994 and 1996.
Vin&Sprit is still the main producer and distributor of spirits in Sweden. It is currently trying to reinvigorate the image of the strong brand names it represents.
Unspiced vodka and brännvin represent nearly sixty percent of the spirits produced by V&S Norden. Explorer, the leading brand sold in Sweden, contains thirty-eight percent alcohol, and its label is decorated with a superb drakkar. Absolut holds only third place, behind Renat brännvin, a brand created in 1877 that contains thirty-nine percent alcohol. There is also the very smooth Kron vodka, created in 1920; Nykopings (flavoured with anise); and Jagar brännvin. The company also makes a line of akuavits with different flavours (see the chapter devoted to them).
While still very recent, the end of the state monopoly has already led to the arrival of new operators on the Swedish market, not counting the foreign producers that now have more freedom to sell their spirits.
Founded in 1893, Saturnus, based in Malmo, is one example of a company ready to attack the market after having “waited a century to throw its punch”. Its founder, Fritz Borg, was a pharmacist and started by making various liqueurs. When his company was forbidden to produce alcoholic beverages, it turned to the extraction of natural perfumes for both beverages (especially sodas) and other food products.
Over the years, it developed a high level of expertise (confirmed by the awarding of the ISO 9001 standard) that was just waiting for the fall of the V&S monopoly to be exploited. Saturnus quickly put on the market a range of several spirits, including Extra brännvin; various schnapps (snaps in Swedish), including Pasksnaps, Midsommar, Kraftsnaps, Julsnaps, and Punsch (made according to the founder’s recipe); and a variety of liqueurs and aperitifs.
Svensk Vodka claims to be the first independent distillery, created in 1917. Its owner, Erik Lallerstedt, was until 1995 a well-known restaurateur in Stockholm and, as soon as the monopoly ended, began to market vodka. “Quality without compromise” is the motto of the company, which is based in Motala in the centre of Sweden. This location was chosen because the family of his partner, Mikael Anders-son, has been making spirits there for more than a century.
The product range is derived directly from this tradition, and the company seeks out old brännvin recipes that were used for cooking but were also drunk on their own. The packaging, however, is modern, and each variety is named after its degree of alcohol: 23, 32, 38, and 60, printed in large characters on the label. It’s a simple but effective concept. The one called 23 is the result of a deliberate decision to create a high-quality drink with a low alcohol content.
Recently, Svensk Vodka put on the market a transparent brännvin in a bottle with a clean design, along with vodkas under the Izy brand, flavoured with peach and lemon.
The J&J Nordic company in Kallby, founded in October 1995, took advantage of the end of the monopoly to begin importing and distributing wine, vinegar, and olive oil. Since October 1997, it has also been producing its own vodka, named Thors Hammer — after the Scandinavian god of thunder — to clearly indicate its Swedish origin. This vodka ranks among the best. It has an alcohol content of thirty-eight percent and is diluted with the melted waters of ancient glaciers that have been protected from pollution.