In my recent trip to Poland for the AGM of the British Guild of Travel Writers I had the pleasure of being introduced to Polish vodka tasting by Pawel Dziubek of Dom Wina wines and spirits in the old Polish manor house (now a hotel) of Dwór Sieraków. This blog post is based on his excellent presentation.
In Poland, vodka (from voda, water) has been produced since the eighth century although the first mention of the word stems from 1405 in the minutes of the Court Registry of Sandomierz. In 1534 there was the first treatise on the distilling of vodka by Stefan Falimirz who writes on the distilling of vodka which, as he asserts, was useful to increase fertility and awaken lust.
The distillation at the time was primarily of rye using pot sills, which could reach an alcohol purity of around 60% alcohol (30% proof).
In 1782 the first modern industrial distillery opened in Lviv, now in the Ukraine, but at the time part of Poland, while in the 19th century two major events revolutionized vodka making. Firstly, potatoes arrived from the New World and, while the yield of their fermentation was poor, there was a lot more of them than rye, so vodka from potatoes became the new craze. Secondly, Irish inventor Aeneas Coffey patented the single column still (the precursor of a modern distillation column) that would eventually allow spirits to reach purity of 95% alcohol. In fact today’s vodkas are diluted down from that level.
Sadly innovation was stifled because the history of Polish vodka is the history of a monopoly. In 1652 the nobility was granted the monopoly of its manufacture and sale; In 1925 it was turned into a Government Monopoly, easily sliding into the Communist vera concept of a state controlling companies – in the case Polmoz. It was only after the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe that Polmoz was privatised and the brands snapped by Western companies like Pernod-Ricard.
By the time Poland entered the EU, everyone and her husband brewed vodka (I had some cheap yellow Vietnamese vodka in Singapore myself) so any Designation of Origin became impossible. Still, the Polish government persisted and created its own. Today Polish vodka is defined as one produced exclusively in Poland, from potatoes or traditional cereals: rye, wheat, barley, oats and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye grown in Eastern Europe).
So on to the tasting of the main five brands of Polish vodka.
|Wyborowa (meaning excellent) is made of 100% rye from Poznań. Legend has it that, when the punters tasted the end product back in 1823, they leapt to their feet shouting ‘excellent, excellent’. It has been the face of Polish vodka abroad since, and the only one available in Britain during the Communist era. As for taste: think of moist rye bread and you’re halfway there. 8/10|
|Luksusowa (no prizes for the meaning) is made of 100% potatoes. I suppose potato vodkas were still luxury compared to rye ones in its launch year of 1928. Although originally produced in Warsaw, the factory is now in Zielona Góra. Today it is the best selling potato vodka in the world with a sweet flavour and an oily aftertaste. 8/10|
|Potocki vodka is the luxury rye brand with a recipe dating from 1816 when Count Potocki inherited Łańcut Castle (currently a museum in sub-Carpathian Poland) and its nearby distillery. The result was the most expensive vodka distilled in the country, now in the hands of the count’s descendant Jan-Roman Potocki. The distillation is slow and there is no filtration like in other vodkas.As a result, this is possibly the most flavourful non-flavoured vodka and its high price tag has ensured its status as the darling of 21st century’s jet set. 8/10|
|In the summer of 2010 I tasted the Żubrówka and was smitten. This is rye vodka dating from the seventeenth century and flavoured with long grass from the Białowieża Forest in the borders with Belarus. This is the grass on which the last remnants of European bison feed on and the vodka is imbued with its subtle, musty aroma. A leaf is manually entered in every vodka bottle – playing the role of the agave worm in Mezcal containers – which, in theory, means that each unit sold has a slightly different flavour. Some spoilsports claim that what makes the taste special is bison urine on the grass, but believe me, the grass is well soaked during the flavour extraction. Anyway, this is my favourite and you can buy it in Waitrose for £18 nowadays. 10/10|
|The final shot was of Żołądkowa Gorzka, an orange-brown, herbal vodka which plays the role of a digestive (or an aperitif) in Polish cuisine. It's a late addition (launched in 1956 and produced in Lublin) and it contains wormwood, gentian, pepper, cubeb, cinnamon and nutmeg among others. Fruity, sweet and spicy, it tastes quite like the flavoured rums of the Caribbean. I should know: I finished a quarter-litre in half an hour during a cold evening’s sleigh ride in Zakopane. 9/10.|
For more info check out the Polish National Tourist Organisation website