Swiss vodka sets out to rival Russian

Rye from the Lucerne hinterland is used to make Swiss vodka

The first-ever Swiss vodka, made from entirely homegrown ingredients, is about to be launched in the United States.

This content was published on August 3, 2004 - 15:02

The new designer product, called Xellent, comes from the Willisau distillery in central Switzerland, famous for its fruit liqueurs such as Kirsch and Williams - the one with the whole pear in the bottle.

Vodka is one of the few spirits gaining popularity among consumers internationally – there are 3,000 different brands. The distillery is relying on Switzerland’s pure alpine image to beat the competition.

The company says Xellent is unique because it is distilled three times and uses only the best quality local ingredients – rye cultivated in mountain smallholdings, and crystal clear water from a glacier.

A rye affair

Othmar Steinmann is one of 17 farmers from the Willisau region who volunteered to provide rye for the vodka.

His fields lie at 700 metres above sea level in the picturesque hinterland of Lucerne. He’s growing the cereal over 1.5 hectares, which should produce ten tons.

Steinmann says many Swiss farmers are looking for new ways of earning a living, “Swiss farmers really feel under pressure,” he told swissinfo.

“It’s getting harder and harder to survive, working on a small scale.”

It’s a grind

After harvesting at the end of July, Steinmann will deliver the rye to the Napf mill in Willisau, where it will be tested for its moistness and sticking properties.

If it meets the high standards set for Xellent, the rye will be ground down and then stored until it can be sent to the nearby distillery. Otherwise it will be used for animal fodder.

Willisau distillery president Andreas Affentranger says there are 350,000 bottles in stock, and there is enough rye stored at the mill to boost production to 1.5 million bottles, depending on demand.

Teething problems

The distillery’s team of developers has been working on the new product for four years, and Affentranger says it’s been a tortuous process.

“Everything was new – the distillation process, the bottles, and we had so many problems to overcome in the development process. Sometimes I thought of giving up.”

He was spurred on by the product and marketing managers, conscious of the need to expand the company’s exports if the distillery is to stay ahead.

The US was targeted for the first shipment because it is the world’s leading market for “ultra premium products” - that is pure spirits, which taste slightly of the raw materials. Thirteen thousand bottles have been sent to New Jersey in the first container.

Affentranger says he’s confident of Xellent’s success.

“I hope in about three years’ time we will have a market share in the US of about two to three per cent in this ultra premium niche.”

A further 8,000 bottles have been dispatched to upmarket bars, restaurants, hotels and department stores around Switzerland.

Unique distilling process

After the rye is fermented, the mash is slowly heated in copper kilns to produce a spirit. This is purified in a reflux, a small copper column developed by the distillery itself.

At the end of the third distillation – the part of the process that makes the product so unique - the vodka has an alcohol content of 96.6 per cent.

Now the final but decisive component is added: water from the foot of the Titlis mountain. Over hundreds of years, the glacial water seeps from a height of 3,000 metres down through the mountain and is collected in the upper Engelberg valley.

The glacial water is soft, rich in oxygen and minerals, and, according to the producers, elegantly underscores the fine flavour of rye vodka.

The water is pumped 40 metres to the surface, and added to the highly potent spirit to reduce the alcohol content to 40 per cent. The liquid is then filtered to eliminate unwanted minerals.

Absolut-ly Swiss

The end product is a smooth-tasting spirit, with a hint of rye, sold in distinctive red conical bottles with wide silver screw caps.

It looks good, it tastes good, but it remains to be seen whether it can win over lovers of Absolut, Finlandia, Stolichnya (Stoli), Skyy, Ketel One and other famous brand names, with slick, multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns behind them.

swissinfo, Julie Hunt in Willisau

Key facts

Up until 1999, it was illegal to produce vodka in Switzerland.
Vodka is a clear, colourless, un-aged liquor made from ethyl alcohol.
It was originally produced in Russia from potatoes, but is now made from barley, wheat, and occasionally rye.

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The Willisau distillery in central Switzerland has produced the country’s first-ever vodka – Xellent.

13,000 bottles are on their way to the US, where the manufacturers are hoping to win converts with a promise of top quality and a hint of rye.

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