Fraught history behind iconic Swedish vodka

4:00 min

The Museum of Spirits in Stockholm just opened an exhibit telling the odd story behind one of Sweden's most successful exports. For as much as the Absolut Vodka brand is iconic, its story is also ironic: even as Sweden was busy producing it, the country was also ramping up restrictions on alcohol as it struggled to keep its people from drinking too much.

In the seventies, the state-run monopoly on alcohol sales, Systembolaget, sponsored an advertising campaign called Spola Kröken, or Flush the Booze, which tried to convince Swedes to drink in moderation, and to avoid drinking strong alcohol.

However, according to the museum staff, reports were still coming out that Swedes were too fond of the drink and abusing alochol. So the Systembolaget took the step to shut its doors on the weekends.

Around the same time a distillery in Åhus in southern Sweden, was in trouble, according to Ingrid Leffler, director of the Museum of Spirits, which currently has "Absolut Sin - the Exhibition" on view.

"It was important for the region down South. They needed to increase the production of vodka," she says.

At the time, the state had a monopoly not just on alcohol sales but also on alcohol production, which meant the state owned the troubled distillery. Sweden found the answer to its problems in America.

"We could see that Finland was quite successful over there, as well as Norway, so if they could export a vodka to the United States, why shouldn't we?" says Leffler, adding, "This vodka was especially created for the US market to save the factory down in Skåne." 

Not everyone liked this idea though. Torsten Bentsson, the speaker of Parliament who also sat on the board of the state-run monopoly on alcohol production and import posed the question, "Should we export sin? Is that what you mean? . . . We should be exporting our alcohol policy instead."

But the board went ahead with the plan anyway, and shipped the first batch of 900 bottles to the U.S. in the spring of 1979. It was a hit, but Leffler attributes its initial success to a number of coincidences.

Later that year, Russia invaded Afghanistan, and as Leffler tells it, the bartenders in New York went out on the street and poured out the Russian vodka, refusing to drink it anymore.

"That was the opening for the Swedish vodka," she says.

Another thing that helped the vodka's popularity was that Andy Warhol and the New York cool crowd embraced it as something glamorous.

According to her, Warhol did not drink vodka, but he joked he used this one as aftershave and even made a painting of the bottle, which was published in his Interview magazine.

There was a huge advertizing campaign that gave the bottle its own personality through visual puns and pop-cultural references. For example, in one ad, the bottle's wrapper is fluttering as if it were a skirt, a play on Marilyn Monroe's famous subway-grate scene from the Seven Year Itch.

While the vodka was taking off abroad, however, it wasn't a big seller in its home country of Sweden. Maybe that's because alcohol advertizements are banned here. According to Anna-Karin Svanberg, exhibition producer at the museum, Renat and Explorer were the vodkas of choice here.

This did not seem to faze the company though, which produced its billionth bottle in 2004. Then, in 2008, Sweden sold the whole state-run alcohol production company, Vin och Sprit, along with the vodka company, to the French company Pernod-Ricard for around 55 billion kronor.

Even though the company is no longer run by Sweden, its presence is still haunting the Museum of Spirits.