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There's Room for One More

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.

You remember Absolut? The brand that single-handedly reinvented vodka as a fashion accessory back in the 1980s? The one whose Andy Warhol-designed ads seemed to have graced the back page of every magazine in America for nearly three decades? The one that sells 11 million cases annually worldwide and was recently sold to Pernod Ricard for more than $8 billion? The one with the universally recognized bottle, the one whose flagship vodka tastes like -- well, nothing? The one that opened Pandora's box by creating flavored vodkas such as Absolut Peppar, Absolut Pears and, most recently, Absolut Mango?

In Stockholm, I met some of the other principals in Karlsson's. One was master blender Börje Karlsson, who is crediting with fathering Absolut. At a dinner where several American and Swedish bartenders were trying to mix cocktails using his vodka, Karlsson wasn't very happy. "I've spent my life making spirits to be enjoyed on their own," he said. "I make the spirit a certain way. I like to drink it that way."

So you never drink cocktails? I asked.

"No, never. To do so would be to destroy a good spirit. Cocktails destroy good spirits."

Karlsson added, "this way of drinking vodka is an American idea." That comment, of course, represents the familiar European whine about how Americans ruin what is good and pure in the world. Which is sometimes true, but not always.

So I was pleased when one of Karlsson's Swedish colleagues pointed out the ridiculousness of that position by asking, "What about Absolut?" Yes, I told Karlsson, I think we Americans can take the blame for a lot of things, but not for, say, a vodka called Absolut Global Cooling.

I had to agree with him about one thing. Karlsson's Gold, beautiful as it is, is not really a vodka to be mixed in a cocktail but rather chilled and sipped by itself. Or perhaps with a little cracked black pepper, or maybe a little club soda or ginger beer (but never tonic). The subtle flavors and the creaminess were lost in most of the cocktails I tried.

One way I enjoyed it was in kaffegok, a traditional eye-opener of Bjare potato farmers, in which the vodka is added to coffee. According to one of the Karlsson's people, gok "either means 'a bird' or 'having sex' " in Swedish.

Now, there's a real puzzle to ponder.

Jason Wilson can be reached at jason@tablematters.com or food@washpost.com.

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