Small Town Rebel Absolut Hits Forty
It’s been forty years since the first bottle of Absolut Vodka left the Åhus distillery. It made the long journey across the Atlantic to end up in some of Manhattan’s trendiest night clubs and most extravagant gay bars of that time. The rest is, as they say, history.
However, for Ann Streton, Johnny Ståhl, Roland Emdefur and Kenneth Jönsson it’s more than just history. Absolut’s journey is a major part of their adult lives. They started working for the Absolut Company in the late 1970’s, before the idea of Absolut Vodka was even born. Back then, Sweden had a state monopoly on production of alcoholic beverages and The Absolut Company had a different, rather self-explanatory, name – Vin & Sprit (Wine & Spirits).
Ann, Johnny, Roland and Kenneth still work with Absolut in Åhus (well, technically Ann retired a month ago). We met up on their day off to reminisce the times that have passed since the first shipment of Absolut left the Åhus harbor for the US.
How did you end up getting a job here?
Kenneth Jönsson: It was in the late 70’s, and back then the process of getting hired was very different from today. Instead of the rigorous processes you go through today, my future boss basically wanted to see if I was up for the job and that I would pitch in when and if it was needed of me. And that willingness to step up was the most important trait to have back then. Everyone was expected to pitch in when necessary. Today, the roles are more specialized, which of course has its benefits. But sometimes I miss the old days.
What were ‘the old days’ like?
Ann Streton: It was a different time, of course. A lot less people worked here, so we were more like a big family. In fact, back then many of the people who worked here were literally family. Johnny, your father worked here while you joined, right?
Johnny Ståhl: Yes, that’s true. My father worked here for 30 years, from 1965 until he retired in 1995, so we’ve been here for a combined 70 years now. But the company grew so much after the success of Absolut Vodka that it’s much harder to come across family relationships here today.
When you were hired, did you have any idea of the success you would be part of, given the imminent launch of Absolut Vodka?
Johnny Ståhl: No, not at all. Back then, the distillery was actually threatened by closure, so success wasn’t really part of our vocabulary. But we were handed a lifeline by getting much of the liqueur production transferred here from Stockholm, where it had previously been located. It did save us from closing, but it only worked as a short-time solution. Anyway, that was a different time and as a result we were producing lots of different products when I joined.
Ann Streton: Yes, we were focused on producing liqueurs, fruit wines, dessert wines and stuff like that back then. I even remember how we used to peel the oranges used in the distillation by hand. We only used the zest in the production, so we gave away the rest to either schools or kindergartens in the area. Whatever was left after that, we – the employees – could then buy for ourselves at a very good price.
The decision to shift production to Åhus was made by then-CEO at Vin & Sprit, Lars Lindmark. He thought it would be a shame to shut down the Åhus distillery, much because of the village’s near century-old tradition of spirits distillation. But as Johnny explained, shifting the production to Åhus was only a short term-plan. Lars had bigger plans for Åhus.
By the late 1970’s, he had identified a growing global market for a premium vodka. His timing was perfect, especially if you considered the market for non-Russian vodka. That same year, The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, and the US responded with heavy sanctions on Soviet products. With growing demand for premium vodka in the US, the sanctions dealt a hard blow for Russian-made vodka and presented a great opportunity for a Swedish contender.
Absolut Vodka was – and still is – inspired by the Absolut Company’s founder L.O. Smith’s famous and ground-breaking Absolut Renat Brännvin, which had transformed the spirits production in Sweden over a hundred years earlier. So, when production of the spiritual successor started in 1979, it had to be done in great secrecy.
If none of you had heard about Absolut Vodka when you were hired, when was the first time you did?
Kenneth Jönsson: News about it only reached us gradually. The first deliveries were carefully concealed with blankets and we didn’t know much about product or what the plans for it were. Naturally it sparked our curiosity and we started asking lots of questions. We got few answers in the beginning, but very soon we learned about the plans of exporting a premium Swedish-made vodka to the US. Shortly after, everyone was involved in bottling and packing the first batch for shipment to the US.
Roland Emdefur: I remember the first batch and the bottling being riddled with small obstacles, though. It was a tiresome process to get the shipments ready: we first had to unpack the bottles, remove the wrapping and fill the bottles, and then reseal the bottles, redo the wrapping and – finally – repack the bottles in the same box they arrived in. It was heavy labor, but everyone pitched in and did their job to perfection.
Kenneth Jönsson: Looking back, I don’t think I was convinced of success at that time. I knew about the failed attempt at large-scale exporting of Swedish vodka in the 1960’s. But as it turned out, this was something completely different. This was a premium vodka with a very clear marketing idea and my doubts were proven to be unfounded, to say the least.
When did you realize Absolut was about to become a success?
Roland Emdefur: It was hard for us to comprehend back here – especially the impact it had in the US. But for me, a clear sign of the success was when I saw Sean Connery drinking Absolut Vodka in a Bond movie. I think it was in the early 80’s, in the movie Never Say Never Again, where James Bond opens a briefcase full of Beluga caviar, quail eggs and a bottle of Absolut. It was an iconic moment, but later on we of course noticed the success in many other ways.
Kenneth Jönsson: We got lots of new colleagues in the early 80’s. Up until then, everyone had been working overtime to keep up with the increased demand, but eventually we reached a point when we needed to hire more people in order to cope. And after that, we just kept growing! About a decade later, in 1994, production hit the roof and we had to streamline our production to focus only on Absolut. Then, after yet another decade, production hit the roof once again. That’s when the distillery in Nöbbelöv, just outside Åhus, opened.
Forty years on, and with over 100 million bottles sold each year, Absolut is still made in the village of Åhus. The front of the iconic bottle reads “One source. One community. One superb vodka. Crafted in the village of Åhus, Sweden. Absolut since 1879.” As one of the world’s most famous spirits brands, this is unique. The biggest brands typically allocate production to various continents – often to minimize costs. But for Absolut, the winter wheat fields surrounding Åhus and the close connection to the local community are far too important to its identity and unique taste. That’s why the village of Åhus and Absolut still go hand in hand and share a pride that seems mutual.
Is the success still noticed here in Åhus?
Roland Emdefur: Definitely. There’s a local pride surrounding Absolut. It’s almost like the entire community is a global ambassador for Absolut.
Kenneth Jönsson: I think people from Åhus like to mention that they come from the place where Absolut is made. At least I do – and it still raises eyebrows when you tell people.
Ann Streton: I’ve noticed that same reaction from foreign visitors that come here. When I tell them it’s actually all made right here – that this small town is the only production site for all Absolut that is sold – they really can’t believe it. Everyone assumes we’re like any other mass-produced vodka, with plenty of production sites all over the world.
Kenneth Jönsson: I particularly remember one time when I showed a few American visitors around the distillery and the factory. After the tour they said ‘Well, thanks for the tour, but where’s the vodka made?’. When I explained that it’s all done here, they just couldn’t believe it. They thought this was some sort of museum.
At the end of the interview, when asked if the thought of quitting has ever crossed their minds during the decades at Absolut, the unanimous answer is ‘no’. That’s actually a very fair representation of the people that put their heart and soul into making each bottle of Absolut. And the stats back it up – according to Johnny, only two people have left the distillery voluntarily since he started working here in the late seventies.