Absolut vodka is made in southern Sweden, in the town of Ahus in the Skane region. I took a trip there this winter to learn how the vodka is made. The distillery can produce 650,000 bottles of vodka per day and I had about that many questions for the producers.
I think it's best to break the process of making the vodka down into its components.
Absolut purchases 20 percent of the wheat grown in the large Skane region of Sweden; about 125,000 tons of it annually.
It is winter wheat, planted in September and harvested in August, nearly a year later. The wheat grown in the southernmost part of Sweden near the distillery is best for producing vodka, while much northern wheat is better for use in making bread.
Wheat best for making bread is high in protein and gluten, and is heavy. It also has a low yield per hectare. Wheat for vodka is lower in protein but of course high in starch as that is what is turned into fermentable sugars.
Wheat crops are rotated with sugar beets, barley, and/or rapeseed.
Because Absolut is such a huge operation, grain is delivered to the distillery every two hours as they don't have space to store months' worth on-site.
Once the wheat reaches the distillery, it is ground into a flour and checked in a sizing machine to make sure that every bit of it is ground to less than 1.5mm in size.
The region is set upon a natural aquifer from which they pull water 146 meters below ground. For the fermentation process, they only filter the water through sand. (For dilution to bottle proof, they use reverse osmosis filtration.)
They then heat up water with flour but instead of making paper mache with it, they add enzymes to break down the wheat into fermentable sugars. They actually use two types: a "liquification enzyme" that turns the wheat into long-chain polysaccharides, and a "sacrification enzyme" that turns these polysaccharides into fermentable sugar.
Then it's ready to be fermented in one of ten of their 600,000 liter fermentation tanks. They use a dried yeast culture that is first hydrated for 8 hours, and then added to the tanks where fermentation takes between 50 and 55 hours.
Heat and carbon dioxide are captured from this process and recycled or sold.
According to European Union law, vodka must be distilled to above 95 percent pure alcohol and bottled at a minimum of 37.5 percent ABV. It can be made from anything but if it is not made from grain or potatoes (as in the case of vodka made from sugar beets or molasses or grapes) it must specify that on the label.
No surprise, the column stills at Absolut are very big. Here's how they break them down:
- The first column is the mash column - where the yeasty, grainy, sugary beer goes in and is separated from the water and alcohol.
- The second column is the raw spirit column that helps remove some sulphurous compounds. The spirit has been distilled up to 85% alcohol after this point.
- The next column is the extraction column. The spirit is diluted with water then redistilled to remove aldehydes.
- The main rectification columnn (actually divided into two columns to keep the height down) further refines the spirit and brings it up to 96.4% alcohol.
- The last column for making vodka is the methanol column, which removes methanol. Unlike most columns, in a methanol column the spirit comes out the bottom of the column, while the vapors to be discarded - the more volatile methanol- comes off the top.
- There is a final column called the recovery column. Some of the stuff that goes through it is pulled off and redistilled into vodka, while other is sold to make cleaning products and such.
For a larger write-up of multi-column distillation, see this post on how multi-column distillation works on Alcademics.
Filtration and Dilution
The water used to dilute the vodka to bottle strength comes from the local aquifer, filtered with reverse osmosis. They say that their water still affects the mouthfeel of the product. One representative said, "The cleaner the water source in the fist place the less you have to clean it. It doesn't affect the taste of the vodka but it does the texture. It contributes a greater mouthfeel to the final product."
Unlike many vodkas, Absolut does not undergo "active filtration," also known as carbon filtration. Nor, they say, do they use any 'rounding' agents (like sugar or glycerin) in the unflavored vodka.
We visited one of the bottling facilities, which are usually pretty boring. But at the one we saw, three weeks' worth of vodka were stored in this massive warehouse. One room looked to be about 8 storeys tall with racks to hold palettes of vodka from floor to ceiling. In the tiny aisles in between the racks, computer-controlled forklift things would whip around in three-dimensions lifting cases and placing them on shelves or retrieving them to fill an order. It looked a lot like the things that hold the doors in Monsters, Inc.
From the bottling facility, the majority of the vodka is shipped over water to Germany, where it is distributed to the rest of the world.