I was recently offered an incredible trip to Sweden – to be a part of the Absolut Akademi Pro. Traveling has become a bit of a collector’s item for me, each new country I go to is a new piece for the collection and any country I am visiting again always shows me new sides to its city. So the feeling was definitely excitement and another addition to my world map. Funny thing is, as much as I love traveling O.R. Tambo fills me with a little regret – completely irrational because its a bit of a sorrow for leaving my country behind even though I would be back in not so long a time. Irrational but I love home haha.
Joining me was none other than Mike ‘Lucky Shaker’ Stephenson and Kresan ‘Snowy’ Naidu… so company was fair but you’ve got to play the cards you’re given haha. Nah, company was awesome and the global participants on this vodka immersion were from as far out as UK, Canada, Turkey, USA and Ireland. With us too, was fairly newly appointed Global Absolut ambassador Rico (Ricardo) Dynan and the legend himself that is, Ben Reed – of Pineapple Martini fame.
- Durban (for Mike) – Joburg – Dubai – Copenhagen
Being in possession of a foreign passport is pure gold, look for the shortest queue in passport control and that’s yours. Poor Mike on his green (with envy) SA passport had to look for the longest queue and that was his. Unfortunately, for me, we were tethered together so my EU passport bought me an at least, comfortable wait on a bench while we waited an hour for Mike to play games at passport control. Not fun when you don’t have a minute to spare to your next connecting.
We made it to Copenhagen and the first thing it got us were several helpings of Espresso Martini…. this is when the vodka started to flow.
Well lubricated we boarded a bus to Åhus, Sweden. We stayed in a really rad, little hotel on the river a few minutes away from the Absolut distillery. Downstairs we met our hosts and received some tasty Pineapple Martini’s which was created by the man, Ben Reed, himself way back in 1997 – apparently this was one of the first martini-style drinks to use fresh fruit in its recipe – not liqueurs and sour mix. Not sure if you’ve caught on yet but Sweden involved a lot of drink and soon to be a lot of food! I came back home and literally split a few pairs of pants.
The night kicked off with a trip into town to one of the local bars – not really a place you’d choose to go to off-hand. It’s difficult to explain but it wasn’t glamorous. There’s a place in Joburg called the Rusty Hook, I have never been but I feel like it would look the way it sounds. This was the Rusty Hook of Sweden! We were herded into this bar and funneled to the back against the wall only to find out that the wall was going to be pushed open and thus reveals the1st secret Absolut bar of the trip (1 of 3 – they really are just scattered across the country). We broke the ice over more drinks and a ‘coldest drink’ challenge – who could shake the coldest drink. To be fair, I was pretty useless. We then got paired up and I received Miss Americano (soon to be thief).
We were then carried off for an intro to Absolut at one of the oldest homes in the country and long-time friend to Absolut followed by dinner – typical Swedish food that we prepared ourselves. Split into 2 teams – 1 team to prepare the potatoes and the other to prepare the classic, mid-summer Strawberry sponge cake. I obviously got drafted to dessert (#diabetesforthewin). Long story short, we banged out some good food; were nourished by great drinks and had a few good laughs around a family-style table with people I had basically just met but felt as if I’d known forever.
We only stayed one night in Åhus, but there was an unofficial challenge which we were told of the day before. If it’s in your room (but Absolut branded) and you can fit it in your bag then you can take it home. This was obviously just a joke but our American representative (Yuna, bless her soul) accepted the challenge. Our beds had the sickest looking Absolut duvets that were obviously made to withstand winters far greater than ours. So guess who came to checkout in the morning with all of her clothes either on her body or in a plastic bag and a duvet stuffed within her luggage! She chose to wear this as a mark of shame down the streets of Stockholm until she could return it.
It was then time for more food and we had the best farm-style breakfast I have ever had in a very cold yet operational winter wheat barn. A bit more chat from the hosts over a cup of coffee, the best cinnamon & cardamom bread ever and what they call Swedish caviar that came in a tube – it was really just fish paste… not good. All of the cold was worth it when they pushed open the barn doors behind us and there was just a massive expanse of beautiful white field that literally sparkled with sunlight. Nothing was growing at that moment but was really overwhelming to see. We had a small chat with the farmer who explained the process of growing the harvest as well as the importance of the terroir. I think it was roughly 1kg of winter wheat = 1 bottle of Absolut.
Welcome to the Absolut distillery
Rico was next up to take us on the tour of the distillery. Each distillery you visit is always so different yet so similar. Absolut’s is quite high tech except for the ‘bad batch marker’ which is a large tube of ping pong balls – a white ball was added for another good batch and a red ball would mark a bad batch that wouldn’t make it out. I didn’t see any red balls. Everything can be monitored and corrected from a single room with maybe 12 different screens with graphs, figures and camera footage.When it comes to bottling and packaging (which was off-site) there are cameras taking pictures of every bottle at every process to make sure that there are no errors being distributed. Each person here gets a 15min shift to sit on a chair and stare at Absolut bottles moving past a white screen to manually check for imperfections – they have an iron will, cannot be distracted in the slightest and probably never blink. What’s great about the actual distillery is that they keep their wastage and environmental impact down to a super minimum while supporting the other farmers and industries around them.
Welcome to the Absolut Elyx distillery
We lunched at Abolsut’s operating hunting lodge which was a great cabin in the woods and possibly surrounded by hungry bears before we visited Elyx. This was a distillery yet again with similarities and differences but more classic in-style. The still is made of pure copper and cladded in part with wood dating back to 1921. We were told that no economy in the world today would be able to reproduce this exact still just based off the amount of copper that it was comprised of and based on what the purchase costs would be. The still was supposedly 8 inches thick of copper. We ascended the stairs right to the top and were introduced to secret Absolut bar no. 2 (2 of 3). More drinks and a Absolut Elyx masterclass and tasting.
Airport: Åhus – Stockholm
Our last day in Sweden was spent in Stockholm where we visited the very cool Absolut Atelier – what used to be an old bank has been converted to what looks like Absolut’s pornstar playboy mansion complete with beds below mirror ceilings. A very cool space with a lot of history and even more remnants of parties passed. It is also home to secret Absolut bar #3 (3 of 3). Here we learnt about Absolut through the ages and its impact and connection to many other industries as well as its presence in the art world and it’s, sometimes, controversial marketing pieces. We ended off with a speed round – my favorite (not really). That night we ate more great food and drank at cool bars such as Tjoget – currently no. 24 on the list. We went into the night with a few more hotspots (visit Tweed and Little Quarter) and a few more drinks.
It definitely was a whirlwind trip that reinstated my appreciation for vodka as well as the impact that Absolut has had throughout the years. A big thank you to the Absolut team in Sweden for hosting us, and Snowy (Kresan) for the opportunity. I also came home with my face on the bottle which is amazing – Andy Warhol, step aside brother.