The origins of vodka are shrouded in the swirling mists and frozen winters of Eastern Europe, and are the subject of much debate in Russia and Poland. Whichever country it happened in first, sometime in the eighth century someone left a bottle of wine outside, thus freezing off the water to leave a residue of alcohol. It was then mixed with medicinal herbs, and prescribed as a healing body rub, rather than a drink, by the pagans who produced it.
After the Poles accepted Christianity in 966, priests saw the light and started drinking this rough spirit, while continuing to extol its medicinal virtues. By the end of the 14th century, the French method of heating wine to become a spirit was widely practised. Polish distilling really took off in the 16th century when a decree was passed allowing anyone to produce and sell alcohol. This early free-market experiment was quickly amended in favour of a policy of granting tax-producing licences - but by this time the nation's taste for the hard stuff was well whetted.
Rye, buckwheat and oats thrive in Poland's chilly soil, and the noblemen who had been granted licences used these grains rather than more costly grapes, which were often imported. Purity was a problem, moving distillers to dress up their spirits in flavoured finery that would mask off-flavours and hues. Situated on the trade route from Asia to Western Europe and Scandinavia, Poland enjoyed easy access to exotic herbs, roots and spices, many of which made their way into the distillers' products, marking the start of an enduring relationship between flavoured vodka and the Polish.
By the end of the 16th century, there were 72 herbal vodkas around, including such challenging varieties as Zmijowka, which involved marinating an adder for several weeks. If medieval snakebite wasn't your thing, the up-market Goldwasser reflected Gdansk's maritime might by infusing pepper, gypsy rose, valerian root, sandalwood and gold leaf in anise-flavoured vodka. Zubrówka itself became fashionable after the Polish-Lithuanian Accord was signed in 1569. En route to the northeast, the Polish court would rest at the hunting lodges and manor houses of the Bialowieza Forest, where Zubrówka was offered as a local delicacy. Royal endorsement saw supplies of this local brew being sent to Kraków, the then-capital of Poland, and nationwide enthusiasm for the drink soon followed. The name Zubrówka is derived from zubr, or bison, for which Bialowieza is renowned, because the vodka is aromatised with the grass that is a favourite bovine snack.
Straddling today's border with Belarus, the Bialowieza Forest has a fairy-tale quality to it, with summer sunlight dappling the mosses and grasses through branches of hornbeam, oak and silver birch, and winter snow lying thick and heavy for six months of the year. The forest is home to some 300 head of bison, who share their habitat with wolves, lynx, three-toed woodpeckers, and a few hundred foresters. To maintain their body weight of nearly a tonne, the bison have to munch their way through 60 kilos of herbaceous fodder a day. A special treat is the fragrant grass Hierochloe odorata, the smell of which excites a bison in the same way as the scent of truffles turns on a pig. This deeply aromatic wild grass retains its nose long after being cut and has spited all attempts at cultivation, causing families to carefully guard the location of their secret harvesting-glades deep in the forest.
In a ramshackle building outside the village of Hajnówka, a shady local fixer scores rough-cut bundles of grass for sums of cash that can keep a family in clover all winter. After spending a day and a night on mesh drying-racks, the boxes of bison grass are brushed free of any forest leaves. Roots are roughly chopped off with a pair of prewar secateurs, and the stems sent across the village to ladies such as Olga Wdowska.
Working on piece-rate in her prewar municipal flat, Olga sorts through the grass stalk by stalk, discarding any knuckled or discoloured stems before cutting neat bundles precisely 20cm long. Tamped flat with the heel of her knife, and secured by rubber bands cut from an old inner tube, the perfectly weighed bunches, as well as any offcuts and rejects, are passed on to the haulier, who escorts them along the Warsaw road. The journey west takes them past the rye fields of Poznan on the way to the distillery in Zielona Góra. Lorries and cars from Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania and the Ukraine drive nose to tail along this modern-day trade route to the single European market.
The Polish vodka industry boomed in the 18th century, when triple-distillation methods made Polish spirit, at 70 per cent abv (alcohol by volume), stronger and purer than its Russian compet-itors. New distilleries opened, often with royal investment, and Polish vodka was exported all over the world. Modern vodka production requires the dilution of crystal-clear rectified spirit (95.6 per cent ethanol), and Poland built the first commercial rectification plant at Starogard in 1871, an advance that caused a further proliferation of distilleries. At the end of the first world war, Poland formed the national distilleries monopoly, Polmos, to guarantee quality, unify brands and control prices. However, this led to the market being flooded with up to 1,000 different brands of varying qualities, as distilleries fought to maintain their local markets. Today, with the seductive smell of privatisation in the air, it is well-run Polmos factories such as the one at Zielona Góra which are best placed to compete internationally.
Close to Frankfurt-an-der-Oder on the German border, Zielona Góra is a neat, damp town with the glossy, Prussian-built distillery at its heart. One smells rather than sees the Polmos factory first, since this is where extracts and macerations of all manner of alcoholic flavourings are made. The legacy of the precise recipes laid down in the last century survives in the extraordinary smell of the factory courtyard, where tankers arrive with raw and rectified spirit, and, during harvest season, farmers deliver berries, seeds, roots and barks to mix with it. Being the only grass to be processed, the consignment from Bialowieza is taken immediately to the double-volume macerator, surrounded by copper piping and pressure valves in the extraction hall.
Bunches of imperfect grass and Olga's offcuts are thrown into the macerating chamber, where alcohol is forced over them, preserving the evanescent scent of the forest in the spirit. Olga's perfect bundles are also given an alcoholic bath, which stabilises them before their journey down the bottling line. The maceration matures quietly in massive old oak kegs, while across town in a spotless laboratory, Elszbeta Goldyka and her team put the iso into bison (to adhere to international quality standards). Using alcohol distilled from pure rye grain, which imparts a smooth, savoury tang to the recipe, Elszbeta mixes just the right amount of macerated grass to colour the brew a faint olive green. As clear bottles file down the tiled filling lines, the final touch is added: a single stem of bison grass is dropped into each bottle.
Because Zubrówka is perceived as a vodka for connoisseurs, ordering one in a Polish bar elicits an impressed raised eyebrow every time. Extra points are scored for requesting a Tatanka - a very Polish cocktail comprising one part Zubrówka to two parts tart apple juice. The inherent sweetness of the vodka clicks effortlessly with the unsweetened apple tang. Consumed with a meal, it is best enjoyed neat and very cold. As the Polish tend to eat winter stews all year round, Zubrówka is essential to lighten up the main course and, at the same time, stimulate conversation. Partnered with smoked salmon or gravadlax, it cuts its way easily through the richness of the fish. Some vodkas need to be slammed down to alleviate their harsh hit, but Zubrówka's mellow flavour repays a meditative sipping style, which renders you gently relaxed rather than falling-down drunk. Metropolitan bartenders often mix the vodka into Martinis - in which case a slice of apple replaces the ubiquitous olive - and Polish cooks sometimes splash a shot into a dressing for a tomato salad, where its rounded flavour points up the freshness of the vegetable with surprising clarity.
However you decide to take it, Zubrówka is an honest marriage of wild ingredients, ancient tradition and modern technology. Reports of its bison-like aphrodisiac properties may be overly optimistic, but, nevertheless, the joys of drinking a Zubrówka are as sensual as a roll in the hay or a walk in the woods.
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