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Absolut Vodka is a contemporary phenomenon. First exported in 1979, Absolut Vodka quickly soared to one of the best-selling premium vodkas in the world today. It is an overnight success…an overnight success since 1879. It was then vodka was first sold under the name Absolut. Yet, Swedish vodka has its roots in the 15th century when Swedes first started distilling spirits called ”bränvin”, literally “burnt wine”. Made from grain or imported wine, these spirits were originally used mostly as medicine and for making gunpowder. The first alcoholrestrictions had nothing to do with sobriety; distilled spirits were needed for Sweden’s war machine. Human nature being what it is, however, people soon found spirits had a number of more recreational uses. By the 17th century, the distilled spirit that we today refer to as vodka had become a national drink.


abuschThe phenomenal success of Absolut Vodka has only one precedent: the success of the man who introduced it. Successful businessman at 10 and entrepreneur at 14, Lars Olsson Smith controlled one third of all the vodka in Sweden while he was still learning to shave. For almost half of the 19th century he was known as “The King of Vodka”. In 1879, he introduced a new kind of vodka called “Absolut Rent Bränvin” (Absolute Pure Vodka) produced using a revolutionary new distillation method. The method was called rectification, a method we still use today. Without knowing it, Lars Olsson Smith had introduced what, exactly a century later, would become Absolut Vodka.


absolutvodka1Not only did Smith create a purer and better-tasting vodka, he also started a trade war against the city of Stockholm. Smith was an entrepreneur in every sense of the word and didn’t take kindly to the city monopoly on distilled spirits. He refused to apply for a permit to sell his product in Stockholm and instead opened a vodka store next to his distillery on the island of Reimersholme, just outside the city limits. He sold his vodka by offering a free shuttle boat to the island – an incredible marketing initiative for the period! The store was a huge success, much to the dismay of the Stockholm spirits monopoly. The trade war escalated, shots were even fired. Smith responded by expanding his business, turning his sights towards southern Sweden, a region for centuries famous for its vodka production.


At the end of the 1870’s, more than half of all alcohol in Sweden was produced in the Skåne region in the southern part of the country. Once again, Lars Olsson Smith went on the offensive, taking over a number of distilleries in the region while attacking existing distribution channels that were selling what he considered to be inferior products. He even used labor unions to boycott retail outlets selling low quality products. Towards the end of the century, Smith started to export his spirits with great success, making him one of the richest men in the country, a fortune he would lose, regain and lose again. When he died in 1913, he was penniless, leaving behind him nothing but debts, angry letters and lawsuits. And the Absolut Vodka concept – a purer vodka with a heritage of innovative marketing. Lars Olsson Smith: on every bottle, in every bottle.absolut_vodka_family


Lars Olsson Smith’s technical know-how and business sense did not die with him. In the 1970’s, a worthy successor was found in Lars Lindmark. President of V&S Vin & Sprit AB (The Swedish Wine and Spirits Corporation) Lindmark soon set about modernizing the respected old company. With the 100 year anniversaryof Absolut Rent Bränvin approaching, he made the decision to export a new vodka. The finest vodka modern distilling techniques could produce, a new product that was a century old: Absolut Vodka. With little experience in advertising, packaging and product positioning, he created a marketing team and set about trying to come up with a new positioning for the new Absolut Vodka. They were aiming high; they had set their sights on the US market, the most competitive vodka market in the world, but also the most lucrative. The US consumes more than 60% of all vodka produced in the western world. Consumption patterns in the US showed that while overall spirits consumption was decreasing, consumption of premium vodka was increasing. The decision was made to market Absolut Vodka as a premium product with a long tradition, meant for a discerning consumer.  It was the first time in this century that Sweden had exported any alcoholic beverage on such a large basis.


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