Vodka and I have never exactly been close. Like many Americans who enjoy an occasional cocktail, there had been a time. But ours was at best a brief fling during my earliest drinking years, before sugary cocktails gave way to gin and tonics, red wine, and—most recently—strong glasses of black tea. (Bless the bar that serves caffeine.)
And then I started regularly visiting Poland. Part of the vodka belt (which also includes the Nordics, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine), the liquor here is served in straight up shots and paired with food and friends whenever possible. There’s also seemingly endless varieties of the stuff. Saddling up to the bar and simply ordering vodka would be like wandering into a restaurant and telling a waiter you’d like food. (Which kinda sounds like a Shia LaBeouf art piece.)
In an honest attempt to not be “that guy” (or girl, as the case may be) I reached out to Eat Polska food tours to help me better understand my home away from home’s drink of choice. Here’s what I took away from our time together.
1. It was originally considered medicine, not booze.
The origins of vodka are debated, but most agree it dates back to Poland in the middle ages. The first mention of the drink was in 1405—not as an intoxicant, but rather as a medicine, which monks referred to as “the water of life.” Even today Poles cling to the drink’s medicinal qualities and claim it cures just about any ailment. For an upset stomach, try a sip or two of Zoladkowa Gorzka, a brand that literally translates to “stomach bitters.”
2. There’s really not much difference between low and high end vodka.
Obviously different ingredients will render a different mouthfeel. Potato vodka is heavier and has a sharper taste, where rye (95% of Polish vodka is produced from rye) results in a lighter, smoother drinking experience. But within each brand, there’s very little differentiation. Wyborowa is one of Poland’s main vodka exports, and has even been gifted to presenters at the Academy Awards. But the only notable difference between their standard and “exquisite” line is an elegantly twisted bottle designed by architect Frank Gehry.
3. Flavored vodka doesn’t have to be vomit-inducing.
Photo by Laura Studarus
In Poland favored vodka is a big deal. Unlike the marshmallow/cookie dough/sugar orgy-flavored varietals that wander unchecked through American university campuses, Polish infused liquors, or “nalewka,” rely exclusively on fresh fruit to create a pleasant, dessert-like aroma. Homemade versions are popular, and family traditions run deep—some going so far as to only disclose exact recipes as part of a final will and testament. To capture the taste fresh berries, peaches, and citrus on a hot summer day, try Soplica Pigwowa.
4. It’s not about intoxication.
Wanna know why Poles are seen as having a high alcohol tolerance? Because they don’t drink to get drunk. Yes, vodka is a high-alcohol beverage. (In Europe anything below 37.5% can’t be marketed as vodka.) But the trick is to sip slowly, pairing it with plenty of salty and/or high-fat snacks. (This would be a good time to mention that Poland’s pickling/fermentation game pairs well with almost any drink.)
It’s a good strategy, since like the British and their relationship with tea, any time is vodka time in Poland. (Save for pregnancy, driving, and those unfortunate enough to be on antibiotics, of course.) It acts much like a social glue. Wedding, memorials, christenings—every social event comes with a special toast, delivered quickly as to prevent the alcohol from warming up to room temperature. People who meet in a work-related context generally aren’t considered first-name basis friends until they’ve linked arms and taken a shot together.
5. It’s got a crazy history.
One of Poland’s most iconic brands is J. A. Baczewski —which older generations actually use as a slang for Vodka. But because of the country’s shifting borders pre-and post-World War Two, it’s also been an Austrian and a Ukrainian brand. The family is a study in marketing genius. They were the first to serve vodka in elegant carafes rather than bottles, and to promote their product on luxury ocean liners. Stefan Baczewski, who took control of the company at the end of the 20th century, was nothing short of a marketing genius. When Smirnoff’s popularity threatened his company, he walked into to their offices and brokered a deal. From then on out, every bottle of Baczewski carried a label “the only vodka of comparable quality is produced by Smirnoff.” Meanwhile Smirnoff’s vodka contained the notice “the only vodka of comparable quality is produced by Baczewski.” (Just try to imagine Coke and Pepsi pulling a similar trade.)
Laura Studarus can’t stop marking up the pages of her passport. Follow her on Twitter.