FEATURES : FOOD / DRINK

Behind the Bar - Karlsson’s Batch 2008

By Craig Cavallo

Published March 30, 2012

A family affair, Bertil Gunnarsson with his son Bo Gunnarsson.

Photo: Stefan Andersson

A family affair, Bertil Gunnarsson with his son Bo Gunnarsson.

The Slattarod Farm in Cape Bjare where the Gammel Svensk Rod potatoes are grown.

Photo: Stefan Andersson

The Slattarod Farm in Cape Bjare where the Gammel Svensk Rod potatoes are grown.

Slattarod Farm during the warmer months.

Photo: Stefan Andersson

Slattarod Farm during the warmer months.

From the field at the farm.

Photo: Stefan Andersson

From the field at the farm.

The final product for Karlsson's Batch 2008 with package design by Hans Brindfors in a potato-shaped bottle.

Photo: Courtesy of Karlsson's

The final product for Karlsson's Batch 2008 with package design by Hans Brindfors in a potato-shaped bottle.

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Potatoes are a significant part of Swedish culture. On Cape Bjare, in the south of Sweden, the soil they grow in is referred to as farmer’s gold. The country grows hundreds of different types of potatoes and certain rare varieties, like the Gammel Svensk Rod (Old Swedish Red), can sell for upwards of $100 a pound. In 2008, Gammel Svensk Rod potatoes matured perfectly on Bertil Gunnarsson’s farm. That’s the opinion of master blender Borje Karlsson anyway, who decided to make an unfiltered, single-varietal vodka sourced exclusively from Gunnarsson’s Gammel potatoes that were picked in July of 2008.

Borje Karlsson is a spud philosopher. He is a man with a unique, inspired understanding of potatoes and he regards them with the same affinity and concern that a winemaker regards grapes. His idea of a single-varietal vodka mimics the production methods of the greatest wines in the world. When you create a wine, or vodka, that is sourced from the same harvest, from a crop grown on a singular plot of land, you are left with a product that is the truest expression the crop can allow.

The idea motivates the Karlsson’s project, which started when farm land in Cape Bjare was threatened by golf course developers. Peter Ekelund is an entrepreneur and a native of Cape Bjare who helped launch Absolut Vodka in the late 70s. Farmers turned to him for help. He quickly saw a promising future, and though he hadn’t spoken with his old friend Borje Karlsson since they worked together on Absolut 30 years prior, he nevertheless reached out to him. His mission, Ekelund explained, was to create a vodka unlike any other in the world, one that focuses purely on quality over quantity and is sourced from one of the most prized potato varieties Sweden has to offer.

At a recent tasting of Karlsson’s vodkas at Del Posto, Borje Karlsson’s efforts revealed a man well versed in potato terroir. Del Posto proved to be the perfect venue for the tasting of Karlsson’s Batch 2008. They will be one of the couriers of the vodka, and just like the wines that fill their remarkable wine list, Karlsson’s is a product made by people that carry a complete understanding of their crop and the terroir in which it is grown.

Karlsson’s vodka comes to the city in a time of Nordic explosion. Chef Mads Refslund Nordic restaurant Acme recently received two stars from New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells. In his review he applauds the chef for his practice of a new Nordic cuisine, “an experiment in restricting the kitchen to ingredients that can be grown or caught or foraged locally.” Frej is another restaurant in New York City practicing the same approach to food. Their website touts that Frej takes its name from the Norse God of Harvest and that their menu reflects what is available given the time of year.

This philosophy seems to run through the veins of Scandinavians and Karlsson’s vodka is a result of this deep rooted appreciation for a country’s heritage. If natives do not praise their local ingredients with an unspoken sense of pride and understanding, who will? This innate respect for food and the land that it grows in has been liquefied by Bjore Karlsson. His profound idea of a vintage vodka will become available to U.S. consumers for the first time. It will arrive trapped inside the glass walls of a squat, potato-shaped bottle designed by Hans Brindfors, a man whose name is tied to the brand concepts of Absolut and Ikea. It’s label will simply read Karlsson’s Vodka Batch 2008. Roughly 18 pounds of the Old Swedish Red potatoes go into each bottle. To further ensure the integrity and character of the potato, the vodka is only distilled once.

Karlsson’s has not created a vodka that is going to sit in the well between Malibu Rum and whipped cream vodka. Their harmonic relationship with the land could never yield such results. Karlsson’s is mother nature’s work horse and they work in tandem with her whims. At 40% alcohol by volume, Karlsson’s Batch 2008 is intended as a sipping vodka, to pour over ice and garnish with a crack of black pepper. It is not a vodka that will play nicely with Redbull. To quote the emotionally detached, “It is what it is.” To quote Borje Karlsson, “If you don’t like it, don’t drink it.”

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