Swedish Spirits

The Impressive Rise of Swedish Vodka brands in a cluttered market

Vodka: The massively popular spirit was born in the Russian hinterlands, consumed by natives for centuries and almost never exported; a stiff concoction meant to harden the soul and warm the extremities in lands not known for copious leisure activity options.

How is it then that a brand from Sweden has become a true multinational powerhouse? Absolut is now the second largest vodka brand after Smirnoff, accounting for nearly nine percent of all vodka that is sold—about 57 million bottles of the stuff is rung up each year, according to the Beverage Information Group.

But perhaps more important than sheer sales, Absolut has a mammoth mindshare on our shores. Credit Absolut’s unavoidable marketing campaign, and some savvy timing, for its overnight success. For starters, the ’80s was not a great time for Russian products in the U.S., and Reagan-era politics quickly demolished the reputation for Russian vodkas during this decade. Absolut swooped in at just the right moment, offering the image of squeaky-clean Sweden and a hip, minimalist look that was backed up by an ad campaign the likes of which the liquor industry had never seen before.

In 1981, a world hungry for something new was slapped with the vodka’s “Absolut Heaven” campaign, featuring an otherwise unadorned Absolut bottle graced with an angel’s wings. The premium-priced product hit consumer’s flush with cash (or at least credit) and looking for instant sophistication. Success wasn’t overnight, but it was close. The brand quickly became the world’s best-selling luxury vodka and has remained so ever since, and the ad campaign, built around a single iconic image and a two-word slogan, has been running virtually nonstop with infinite variations.

According to Jeffrey Moran, a vice-president at Pernod Ricard, that bought Absolut’s parent company from the Kingdom of Sweden for $8.3 billion last year, Absolut’s success begins with the product. He says, “We have a product that has remained the same since the day it was introduced, and any flavor or variant we introduce starts with the same source. Layer upon that our addiction to pop culture and our understanding of how to market to people, and that’s a recipe for success.”

Today, Absolut faces more competition than ever, driven by literally hundreds of brands that have arisen in its wake as they attempt to replicate the popularity of Grey Goose’s prominence in the market.

And now Absolut has competition right in its own backyards. Perhaps the biggest vodka success story of the post-Grey Goose era has been Svedka, a relatively inexpensive Swedish brand which seemingly came out of nowhere. Svedka’s arch and sarcastic, ultra-futuristic, fem-bot anchored marketing campaign (slogan: “voted #1 vodka of 2033”) is the subject of much controversy, inspiring a love it or hate it response from many drinkers. Whatever the response, it seems to have worked: Svedka, manufactured by a cooperative of Swedish farmers, now claims its spot as the number five vodka brand (ahead of Stolichnaya and Ketel One), selling 26 million bottles in 2008. With a roughly $12 shelf price, Svedka is an absolute bargain compared to Absolut (at $18 and up), and the brand is now moving into flavored versions.

More Swedish vodka brands have also cropped up in the last couple of years, including Purity, which comes in a bottle that looks like it was carved out of ice, and Karlsson’s Gold, which is made by Börje Karlsson, Absolut’s former master blender. Karlsson’s uses new potatoes as its base starch instead of winter wheat, which all of the other major Swedish vodkas rely on as the basis for the spirit. Though potatoes are more traditional, it’s cheaper and simpler to use grain to make vodka. Karlsson isn’t content with just one variety of potato, either. He uses seven of them in his unique vodka.

Karlsson’s also takes a serious diversion from its ultra-hip, minimalist brethren, packaged in a tubby and squat bottle which features a golden potato on its label. Is Karlsson gently ribbing his old employer’s simplicity with this decidedly different label and bottle design? The company suggests it is simply trying to focus on what’s inside the bottle instead of fancy packaging.

So what is it about Sweden that inspires such a passion for vodka—or at least the passion for Americans to buy it? Maybe it’s the IKEA factor: It’s good enough, the prices are right, and with a little bit of patience, anyone can build something beautiful out of it.

– Christopher Null