The vodka empire in the Swedish potato belt

L.O. Smith’s name is mainly associated with the vodka factory at Reimersholme in Stockholm. However, during his glory days, he ran several other factories too. The headquarters for his liquor empire were in fact located in southern Sweden.

In the 1800s, Swedish spirit production had its main stronghold in the southern county of Skåne. In the so-called “potato belt” around Listerlandet in the county of Blekinge and in Kristianstad in Skåne, the distilleries lined up one after the other. L.O. Smith was born in Kiaby, east of Kristianstad, so he felt at home here.

Branch in Kristianstad
Kristianstad is also where Smith went when he wanted to expand his liquor business in the 1860s. In 1865, the liquor company L.O. Smith & Co. established a branch there. The following year, he opened a warehouse at the quay by the canal in the district called Vapenbrodern.

Through his company Win- och Spirituosa, Smith became the leading vodka merchant in southern Sweden. As he liked technology and was keen to expand, he bought wholesaler Sven Hellerström’s purification plant in 1876. The new plant allowed him to purify the liquor using a specific method from Germany. The deal included the recipe for what would become the hugely popular Carlshamn punsch, an alcoholic drink made with arrack essence.

In the same year, L.O. Smith bought the property next to the warehouse in Kristianstad, with the intention of opening a vodka distillery there. It is possible that the business had already been conducted on the site, though on a smaller scale.

Factory designed by famous architect
In 1877, architect Magnus Isæus in Stockholm was assigned to work on the plant. His drawings included a 9 meters wide and 20 meters high tower, with connecting single-story buildings on each side. Although Isæus was fairly new as an architect, he was about to have a major breakthrough. He had already represented Sweden at the World Exhibitions in Vienna in 1873 and in Philadelphia in 1876. During the 1880s, he carried out several prestigious assignments in Stockholm, for example the Davidson Palace, the bathing institution Sturebadet, and the impressive Norstedt building on Riddarholmen, a small island next to the Old Town. He was also appointed professor at the Royal Institute of Technology.

L.O. Smith liked Isæus, who had a preference for historic buildings made of sturdy bricks. A few years later, Smith would also give him the task of drawing the massive factory in Karlshamn.

A vodka empire in southern Sweden
The technology from Hellerström’s factory quickly became an important selling point for Smith. The factory in Kristianstad was equipped with new heat-treating columns that produced one million liters of purified alcohol every month. The refurbishment was completed in the spring of 1882.

In 1878, Smith founded a new company, Skånska Spritfabriksaktiebolaget, by merging a factory in Malmö and the vodka factory in Kristianstad. A few years later, it became a subsidiary of Svenska Spritförädlings Aktiebolaget, a company that emerged in Karlshamn and was led by L.O. Smith’s son Otto Smith.

Smith’s rapid expansion did not suit everyone. In 1886, the cautious managing director Carl A. Nilsson made it clear that he was dissatisfied with the constant development plans, and proposed a slower pace. As a result, he was transferred from Karlshamn to Malmö. During his time in Malmö, the business specialized in the production of a 95% strong, high quality liquor. It was not only used to make vodka but could also be added to wine, cognac and punsch through a method known as cutting.

Tougher competition
The business also grew in Kristianstad. During the 1890s and early 1900s, competition became increasingly fierce. At the same time, the temperance movement called for a total liquor ban. The solution was to collaborate closer with other companies, and eventually a cartel was set up. The idea was driven by Nils Peter Mathiasson, CEO of Helsingborg Spritförädlings Aktiebolag in Ödåkra. Mathiasson was from Malmö, where his father worked at the factory with coal cleaning. This is also where Mathiasson got his first job as a clerk.

In 1910, the remaining processing plants were merged as the Reymersholms Gamla Spritförädlings Aktiebolag. Shortly afterwards, operations at the facilities in Malmö and Kristianstad ceased.

Traces of L.O. Smith’s vodka empire remain to this day. An example is the warehouse in Kristianstad, which is considered an important part of Sweden’s industrial heritage. In 1917, the old brick building housed a silverware factory. A few years later, a silver smithy whose traditions goes back to the 17th century had moved in too.