Tales of legendary Scanian Aqua Vitae

Article text
Absolut factories in Åhus, Scania.
Historical tell tales

In the early 19th century notes from a clergyman says that each schnapps has its opportune moment and a beloved child many names. Indeed we know our schnapps as Firewater, Yodle-juice or e.g. Purified. In addition to its role as working up an appetite this invigorating “Water of Life” has also had other defined uses ever since medieval times. It was also used for the production of gunpowder, as a method of payment and for medicinal purposes.

Purified was imported to Sweden from Germany for the production of gunpowder but a manufacturer soon discovered its intoxicating effect when consumed orally. His friends also adopted a liking for the drink and it was subsequently commercialized. Inventive Swedish soldiers where not too late to initiate manufacturing methods during their campaigns in Russia. During the 16th century it was known to cure any kind of ailment and affliction another indication being “Aqua Vitae Contra Oppositum” against plague. Later, in the 19th century it has been said that labor force in some factories and sawmills may have been offered compensation in form of Purified, too. Distillation for domestic use became very usual in Sweden until larger distilleries covered for the large demand of 100 million liters for a population of 3 million during the 19th century. The volume may not appear too surprising taking into account that the daily schnapps in fact could be consumed eight times per day from early morning until late evening.

The amazing Lars Olsson Smith

Swedish schnapps is strongly linked with one man, L.O. Smith, who saw the market opportunity, formed partnerships with large producers and as a young man, aged around 30, controlled half of the sales of raw liquor in the whole country. He was also the one to introduce modern production technology with fractional distillation without having to use fusel alcohol that created impurities and bad taste. The new product was called “Tenfold Purified Vodka” but was later changed to “Absolutely Pure Vodka”. Eventually, in 1979 the brand ABSOLUT VODKA was launched to become worlds 4th largest international spirit brand selling in 126 countries.

But during the 19th century L.O. Smith had to prove his natural business skills and fight his way forward in a remarkable way. Born in Scania he attended school for two years but then decided to enter the business world. He had to fight off municipal competition and offered free boat trips to his distillery island selling some 1,4 million liters annually. Later when he travelled to Egypt with his family his company faced a hostile take over situation. L.O. Smith decided to rent his own train to get back fast. Using a false beard he arrived with the press and managed to counteract and saved the company. In 1882 the market faced with a serious overproduction. L.O. Smith decided to continue with free boat transfers (three vessels left twice an hour), he undercut prices and arranged for large advertising campaigns in order to maintain his market position. During a severe shortage of product on the Spanish market he agreed to supply the country with 60 million liters annually. Due to political maneuvers he later had to close all 26 affiliates in Spain and suffered from personal misfortune through divorce and a heart attack. Additionally he entered into a lifelong legal dispute, left the country to travel the world, made another fortune until the war in South Africa ruined his businesses for the second time. L-O. Smith never made a third comeback but returned home to Sweden and passed away in 1913.

During his lifetime Mr. Smith was a very active member of the society. He was a member of parliament, engaged in social reformation, banking, sugar industry, scientific companies and he learnt seven languages during his career. Upon his death he was praised by the press due to his economical talents, his foresight and for the ability to successfully implement new ideas. For above details in this article courtesy is given to Mr. Marcos Cantera Carlomagno at the university of Lund.

What came out of it all?

• A leading brand worldwide selling 500.000 bottles monthly by Pernod Ricard in about 126 countries.
• A sizable manufacturing industry in Scania that supply 75% of all the raw liquor in the country.
• A distinctive design packaging from photographer Steven Bronstein and longest running advertising campaign with input from artists like Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and others. Posters and Absolut musical tracks originated by Lenny Kravitz have also been produced.
• The Absolut Art Collection is situated in Stockholm (Spritmuseum).