Back in 1879 in the small hamlet of Arhus, Sweden, a young man named Lars Olsson Smith created his own vodka in an attempt to end the long-standing liquor monopoly held by the metropolitan city of Stockholm. Little did he know that he was creating a brand that would become known the world over, featuring some of the most iconic advertising campaigns of the 20th Century and eventually trading hands for billions of dollars. This is something made all the more astonishing by the fact that for the first 100-years, the brand wasn’t even available outside of Sweden. It’s the kind of rise to prominence that most distillers can only dream of.
A successful businessman at 10 and entrepreneur at 14, Lars Olsson Smith produced nearly one-third of all the vodka in Sweden while he was still learning to shave. For almost half of the 19th century he was known in Sweden as “The King of Vodka”. In 1879, he introduced a new kind of vodka called “Absolut Rent Bränvin” (translation: Absolute Pure Vodka) produced using a revolutionary new distillation method called rectification, a method we still use today.
Towards the end of the century, Smith started to ferry his spirits around Sweden with great success, making him one of the richest men in the country. It was a fortune he would lose, regain and lose again during his lifetime. When he died in 1913, he was penniless with no awareness that his regional brand would become a global behemoth.
In 1917, the Swedish government elected to monopolize the liquor industry, and Absolut was acquired for an undisclosed sum (though no doubt a paltry amount given the brands future trajectory). The now-government run operation stayed relatively regional in Baltic Europe, but increasingly their research was telling them the true profits lay stateside, where over 60% of the world’s vodka was consumed every year.
Gaining traction in the US market would be no small feat for a regional brand. Despite being the most lucrative market in the world, competition was fierce, and Russian brands had the benefit of a centuries-old vodka making history and an early foothold in the market. Consumption patterns in the US showed that while overall, purchases of spirits were decreasing, consumption of premium vodka was experiencing a stunning rise. The decision was made to market Absolut Vodka as a premium product with a long tradition, meant for a discerning consumer. What they really needed was a way to stand out.
Advertising man Gunnar Broman was looking through an antique shop window in Stockholm when he saw an old Swedish medicine bottle, a familiar site in the country that had been unchanged for more than a hundred years. The bottle was elegant, different than most other bottles, and ‘Swedish’ in its subdued minimalism.
In 1979, Absolut made its way stateside with what would become one of the most successful branding/marketing efforts of the 20th Century. Using the iconography of its medicinal style bottle with painted logo (Olsson Smith reportedly hated the idea of a paper label obscuring his finely crafted spirit), Absolut assaulted American consumers with artist collaborations ranging from Andy Warhol to Keith Haring. To date, the campaign has featured 550 artists creating 850 different releases. In fact, to this day there exists a dedicated collector market of rare and obscure absolute bottles, with particularly well-known artists and obscure releases alike fetching hundreds of dollars (empty!).
Today, the brand would be unrecognizable to Smith, and to those early government employees who first took the risk and sent it’s fate as a brand across the Atlantic. Some things remain the same though. Every drop of Absolut Vodka consumed in the world today comes from the same place: the Absolut distilleries near Åhus in southern Sweden, where the spirit has been made since 1906. And in true Mule form, Absolut also has its own Absolut Moscow Mule recipe (always best served in one of Grandma Sophie’s original Moscow Mule mugs). They still use grain from nearby fields and water from their own well, they just use a lot more of it.