Spirits: Karlsson's Gold, A Vodka With Flavor

Karlsson's Gold, at top; below, one of the experiments using single-variety potatoes.
Karlsson's Gold, at top; below, one of the experiments using single-variety potatoes. (By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Put on your beret, light up a Gauloise, put down your Kierkegaard and consider the following: Does the world need another vodka?

Maybe that doesn't rank up there with life's great philosophical puzzles, such as "What is the nature of the universe?" or "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" or even "How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?" But "Whither vodka?" has become the hot-button question of the cocktail realm. In April, the Wall Street Journal declared that it's official: "Vodka is passe." A few weeks later, the New York Times countered: "Vodka Dead? Not So Fast." That level of debate probably explains why no one is asking lifestyle journalists to help solve the financial crisis, stop the swine flu pandemic or save the ailing newspaper industry.

Still, "Does the world need another vodka?" is a question that surely has been pondered by those of us who've seen liquor store shelves sagging under the sheer volume of premium vodkas on the market. I can only assume that the development of new vodkas -- each in a fancy bottle and with romantic stories involving special places and rare ingredients -- will go on until the world ends in fire or ice. In fact, I have a recurring dream in which the first sign of the Apocalypse is a press release for a vodka that has been quintuple-distilled from tears of flaxen-haired angels and flavored with the ambrosia of Mount Olympus.

All of which is to say that I was not particularly surprised to learn that the makers of a Swedish vodka called Karlsson's Gold claim the recently launched product is "the first luxury vodka that can sincerely boast its own terroir." Nor did it surprise me that this vodka is made exclusively from new potatoes grown on Sweden's Cape Bjare ("the region is to potatoes what France's Bordeaux region is to grapes," according to the company). Nor that these potatoes are so delicate that they must be washed and refrigerated within four hours of harvest. Nor that they are sought after by chefs in Scandinavia's finest restaurants. Nor that the vodka was motivated by its maker's altruistic desire to keep Cape Bjare's potato farmers on their land.

I was, however, surprised at the question raised by one of Karlsson's Gold's founders, multimillionaire Peter Ekelund, when I met him a couple of weeks ago in Sweden. "Does the world need another vodka?" Ekelund asked. "The product has gotten so boring. It's gotten too big for its own good." His response was, of course, to create another vodka that retails for $40 in the United States. "We wanted to do something contrarian," he said.

The contrarian idea: Can a vodka actually have taste?

Odd, really, how few of the dozens of vodka companies ponder that question. Most non-flavored vodkas chase some standard of purity and neutrality and boast of being thrice distilled, five times distilled, 10 times distilled. Essentially, those vodkas are marketed based on their utter lack of flavor.

Karlsson's Gold, on the other hand, is an unfiltered blend of several potato varieties that grow on Sweden's southeastern coast -- Solist, Minerva, Gammel Svensk Rod and others -- that's then distilled as little as possible, going through a continuous still only once and retaining some of the funkier elements to give it character.

When I tasted with Ekelund, he brought out some experimental bottlings of single-variety, single-vintage, single-farmer potato vodka. Say, a June 2004 Minerva, or an August 2006 Solist. To say I was skeptical is an understatement. But when I tasted, the differences were significant and noteworthy. A 2004 Solist was sweet and starchy compared with a 2004 Minerva, redolent of apple peels, or a 2006 Gammel Svensk Rod, which was hot on the finish but full of herbal intensity.

The Karlsson's Gold approach, then, is to make a vodka that derives its taste from carefully chosen ingredients -- in this case, gourmet potatoes -- meaning its gimmick is really no gimmick at all. The final blend is rich, creamy and smooth, with notes of herbs and crisp fruit. It is a lovely spirit: vodka with flavor.

"These are the ideas that change industries," Ekelund said. "The big ideas to solve problems."

That sounds like pretty grand talk from a small-potatoes vodka company that's now selling about 25,000 cases a year worldwide. Until you realize, in the ultimate ironic twist, that Ekelund and his colleagues at Karlsson's are actually the same people responsible for setting the premium-vodka snowball rolling nearly three decades ago when they worked for another little Swedish company called Absolut.

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