The method that revolutionised the vodka industry

Smith was the first person in Sweden to introduce a new method for purifying vodka on a large scale. He wanted to get rid of the unpleasant-tasting and unhealthy fusel alcohol and instead offer an absolutely pure vodka. But what was actually so new and revolutionary about his method?

All types of spirits are distilled with impurities, fusel alcohol. Sometimes it can add a specific flavour, but usually there has been a desire to get rid of it, historically speaking. One traditional approach to improving the flavour was to store grain spirits for a prolonged period. However, that was a costly method that required a great deal of patience. Another approach was to spice spirits in order to disguise the taste of the fusel alcohol – the spices could also adsorb the undesirable substances to some extent.

Carbon purification of spirits
Carbon purification of spirits is mentioned for the first time in the late eighteenth century. It was the pharmacist Lowitz, working in Saint Petersburg, who described how to purify spirits by filtering them over a carbon bed after distillation. This discovery had a huge impact, and it started to become common to purify Russian vodka in a carbon bed. Around the turn of the 19th century this method also seems to have reached Sweden. This so-called cold purification of vodka usually made use of porous carbon. The undesirable substances attached to the surface of the carbon and the flavour was improved, although it was still a long way from a desirable quality. Carbon-purified vodka was also used to produce other spirits. Distillers carbon-purified the vodka and then diluted it with water, flavoured it with fruit, wine and berries and sweetened it to produce different kinds of liqueurs.

By the mid-19th century, increasingly complicated methods were being developed to carbon-purify vodka: vats, filter equipment, purification casks and pans were among the methods used. For instance, by linking up pans with various types of filter material, it was hoped to produce a purer product. Among the materials used were charcoal, bone char, lime, graphite and rice flakes. This sort of filtration was time-consuming and a real craft.

Warm purification breaks through
A modern and growing vodka industry needed more rational methods. There had already been trials with warm purification in the 1820s. These involved distilling the vodka one or more times. Each redistillation produces a purer quality. Technological development soon made it possible to produce special warm purification equipment for industrial use, which first had an impact in France and Belgium, followed by Germany.

The first person in Sweden to use the new method was merchant Sven A. Hellerström in Karlshamn. In 1866 he modernised his distillery using German-made equipment. During the following decade, Hellerström quadrupled his production of purified vodka. L. O. Smith came from Karlshamn and probably became aware of Hellerström’s success early on. And it was Smith who was at the forefront of perfecting the new technology. In 1871 he installed a French-produced warm purification column in his spirits factory on Reimersholme. The column was given the appropriate nickname of Bacchus – after the Roman god of winemaking – and remained in operation for over a hundred years, until 1977.

Warm-purified vodka on a large scale
In 1876, L. O. Smith bought Hellerström’s factory in Karlshamn and the following year started to market warm-purified vodka on a large scale. At the time there was fierce debate about harmful vodka, and Smith could now present warm-purified vodka that was free from fusel alcohol. In a major advertising campaign, Smith informed the public of the harmfulness of carbon-purified vodka and the benefits of the new warm-purified method. Smith declared warm-purified vodka to be ten times purer because the product produced by redistillation corresponded to vodka that had been carbon-purified ten times. Later, he also began using the brand ‘absolut renat vodka’ (completely purified vodka).

In order to obtain scientific proof of the benefits of the warm-purified vodka, L. O. Smith paid for research studies. He also funded the large alcohol congress in Paris in 1878, where the new findings were presented and discussed. Warm purification now became generally accepted and revolutionised the vodka industry. Some politicians even wanted to ban cold purification using carbon in Sweden at the end of the 1800s, but things never went that far. In fact, carbon purification is still used within the industry, but mainly as an additional measure to neutralise and improve the flavour.