Once upon a time, way back in the 1990s, vodka was pretty much the coolest thing you could order. It was the It drink at clubs and bars, and its magical (dearth of) flavor swept the nation. But, in the last decade, the craft movement has exploded. "Small batch," "hand-made," and "craft" are the new buzzwords for everything from beer to whiskey and gin to cocktails.
Meanwhile, vodka has been left out of the conversation. No longer sitting at the cool kids' table, it's been forced to hang out with a group of aunts in tacky sweaters. So when arguably the biggest vodka company in the world makes a play to get in on the craft scene, does it have a chance of fitting in? Or is it like the time your dad showed up at your prom, wearing Hammer pants and a D.A.R.E. T-shirt?
It's Friday afternoon, you've made it through the long week, and it's time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo's weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science, and alcohol. Can I get a vodka that's just vodka-flavored anymore?
What Is Elyx?
Elyx is a new, premium vodka from Absolut, and everything about it is a play at craft culture. By way of background: Vodka is the number one selling spirit in the U.S., and, globally, it's number two, just behind South Korea's insanely popular Soju. Roughly 520 million cases of vodka are produced every year, which breaks down to roughly 200 bottles per second. It's big, and among premium vodkas, Absolut is the biggest (and its second-biggest among second-tier vodkas, with Smirnoff being first). In other words, Absolut is the machine that craft culture rages against.
Despite that, when it comes to Elyx, Absolut basically does everything right to appeal to craft sensibilities. A fun-fact most people don't know about their favorite vodka: Most vodka companies don't actually distill their own spirits, at least not at the start of the process. Surprise! Most buy neutral grain spirits from third-party companies, and then run them through their own rectifying stills. Actually, when you read about spirits that are "distilled six times!" that typically means it goes through one still with six rectifying columns. Generally speaking, each rectifier is designed to remove a different impurity (the most important being methanol), then they water it down to the proof they want, bottle it, and slap their label on it.
In contrast, Absolut buys wheat from 450 different farms in the south of Sweden and they do all of the distilling themselves at their main distillery in Nöbbelöv. The distillery was recently dubbed the world's most energy efficient distillery per liter. Not only that, it sits directly on top of an underground lake that's more than 400 feet below the surface and has never been touched by industry, so the water that goes into the vodka is theoretically super pure. Got a lot of crafty buzzwords in there already, right? Just you wait.
For Elyx, Absolut uses single-estate wheat which comes from just one single farm at Råbelöf Castle in Åhus, Sweden, where they've been growing wheat since the 1400s. According to Absolut, that farm has consistently yielded the best wheat with the perfect water/starch balance. The wheat undergoes the usual process at the main distillery to become a raw spirit, but then it's put on a truck and carted over to a second still to be finished.
This rectification still, known as Column 51, was built in 1921 and is entirely copper. Copper is extremely important to the process because it catalyzes trace compounds within the spirit and imparts a distinctive (if subtle) flavor. This still is entirely hand-operated by a small team of highly-skilled distillers. Temperature, flow-rate, and "every knob, handle, and lever" is adjusted by hand. "From seed to bottle, everything is done within a 15-mile radius of the distillery," according to the literature.
I mean, come on! What could be craftier than that? "Strained through the mustaches of proud miners then filtered through the charred stones of the Berlin Wall." Okay, maybe that. But otherwise, it ticks basically every other box craft fetishists could want. Oh, except, it's made by the monolith that is Absolut (not some little mom and pop operation), and it's a vodka. So how do you sell it?
To help legitimize Elyx in the cocktail scene, Absolut has been hiring people with very legit cocktail cred to be Elyx's brand ambassadors. In Los Angeles, they got the highly-respected Lindsay Nader, whose resume includes places like the legendary P.D.T. in New York amongst others. Gizmodo caught up with her in L.A. and got the full rundown on what exactly Absolut is trying here.
"It's a hand crafted product, so we're definitely going after the best cocktail bars and the best farm-to-table restaurants," Nader told us. "We're looking for a specific type of customer and a specific type of bartender. We're being careful with it and we're testing the waters. We don't want to see it get thrown into a Long Island Iced Tea, but you'll start seeing it soon specialty liquor stores."
Part of the pushback, of course, is against Absolut itself, which is seen as a behemoth in the liquor world. However, as Nader is quick to point out, "Some brands are big because they make a really good product." Absolut aside, a lot of what Nader does is focused on vodka as a category, trying to bring it back into the conversation. She talks about it in the context of history, of global sales, and of production, where she stresses the three most important factors for a vodka: water, raw materials (i.e. wheat), and production method. This, of course, is a nice segue into talking about Elyx, where she gets to highlight everything that makes it so craftastic.
So, it's a very direct play for the cockles of the craft cocktail heart. But what does the modern cocktail community think of Elyx? We asked.
For starters, we reached out to our good friend Sother Teague of Amor y Amargo in NYC, who was recently featured in the New York Times and has helped us with many Happy Hours in the past. We asked him what he thought of Elyx, and if it (or any other) vodka had a chance in the landscape of craft cocktails. He didn't pull any punches: