Cheers to Poland – a celebration of vodka and beyond
12 min read
Poland – more than just Vodka!
Mention Poland to anyone, and the first drink they mention is Vodka. But on visiting Poland you will find out there’s so much more on offer including locally brewed beer, cider, wine and so much more!
In part 1 of this 2 part blog, I cover Vodka with a trip to the Polish Vodka Museum to learn more about vodka and Nalewka (a Polish liquor) and a trip to Nalewki Staropolskie to see Nalewka being made.
Note : this post contains references to alcohol, and is therefore only for reading if you are of a legal drinking age in your country of residence (21 years in the UAE) and non-Muslim.
Alcohol as Food
“In the Poland of olden days, alcohol was more than a drug, cosmetic or beverage with preserving, refreshing or intoxicating properties – it was also part of the staple diet, as it was commonly believed that similar to bread or meat, alcohol has nutritional value. Thus, traditional cuisine employed alcohol as an ingredient of dishes, soups, and assorted infusions. In carefully measured doses vodka, wine, and beer were also used to help digestion or to ‘flush out all bad humours’ before a meal. Occasionally vodka was consumed immediately upon getting out of bed – to doctor’s orders, so as not to leave home on an empty stomach. Memoirist Ulrich von Werdum on vodka, most likely in slight exaggeration; even the most aristocratic Poles carry it in their personal cases and have to imbibe once an hour.”
Source : Polish Vodka Museum
Polish Vodka is part of the Polish national heritage, and is an essential attribute of ‘Polishness’ recognised all across the world. It also a crucial element of Polish culture, which has been served on Polish tables during celebrations for centuries. ~ Polish Vodka Museum
Polish Vodka becomes popular
Vodka only became a common place drink in Poland around the 16th century but was originally reserved for the aristocracy and noble manor houses where it was often made at home in homemade distilleries. The lower classes drank beer. The reason for the distinction was down to the vessel it was drunk from. Glass and crystal glasses were not available so vodka was drunk from a metal goblet which was reserved for the wealthy. It was only from the 18th Century onwards when glass goblets and tumblers were more available that more people began to drink vodka.
What makes Polish Vodka Polish?
In order to be classed as Polska Wódka (Polish Vodka) the vodka must contain no additives other than water, be produced from rye, wheat, barley, oats, triticale (wheat/rye hybrid) or potatoes grown in Poland, plus be produced in Poland.
Polish Vodka is held in high esteem, and is listed with Protected Geographic Indication logos which recognizes its geographical and historical importance.
Polish vodka has a strength of 40% so packs a punch!
Polish Vodka is so famous it has it’s own day – 13th January which marks the day in 2013 when the definition of what makes a vodka Polish (above) was legislated!
“The three most astonishing things in the past half-century were The Blues, Cubism and Polish Vodka” ~ Pablo Picasso
How to Serve Polish Vodka
The best temperature to serve vodka is between 6°C and 8°C as ice cold vodka loses its characteristic properties. So take the vodka you have been storing out of the freezer! I know I’m innocently guilty of that!
Some of the more popular Polish vodkas that you might have come across are:
Belvedere Vodka – a rye vodka named after the Polish presidential palace in Warsaw called Belweder. It’s made using Dankowskie rye harvested from one of seven nearby farms. You might also have spotted Belvedere in Spectre, the James Bond film where it was featured as the official vodka.
Żubrówka (Bison grass vodka) – a Polish dry, herb-flavored vodka. It’s a rye vodka distilled with a tincture of bison grass which adds to the flavor and gives the yellowish colour to the vodka. There’s also a piece of bison grass in the bottle for authenticity.
A trip to the Polish Vodka Museum
If you like Vodka then I highly recommend a trip to the newly opened Polish Vodka museum which is located in Warsaw. The tours operate regulary in English and Polish, and you are advised to book in advance to guarantee a place. We visited during a quiet time and had plenty of time to explore and play around with the interactive displays.
The guided tour consists of a short film about the history of vodka and how it was marketed and promoted way before social media times. Next is a really fun and educational interactive section where you learn about the history of vodka and it’s production method. The next section of the ‘educational’ part of the tour is fun, as you learn about different ways in which people had coded words for drinking during etc.
Finally there’s a guided tasting session where you learn more about vodka and how to taste it along with a tasting of three different types of vodka, a rye, potato and wheat, and they all taste so differently. I think I decided on rye as my favorite but I might to try it again to make a final decision! For those who love to shop, there are opportunities to do some vodka themed shopping too!
Tip : pre book and eat before you visit, as the vodka shots are quite intense!
More vodka and some Vodka paired food….
If you’ve some spare time pop into the on site Vodka bar, it’s huge! Then have dinner nearby at Zoni who have tasting menus paired with vodka by Chef Aleksander Baron. We dined at Zoni and enjoyed an exquisite Tasting Menu where my personal highlights included the Polish caviar (Siberian sturgeon), borscht, local honeycomb, peat aged cheese and zander, a local fish.
Polish Flavored Vodkas
Over the course of our trip I managed to try quite a few of the flavors from little bottles of flavored vodka which are sold in every corner shop. There’s a host of different flavors to try including hazelnut, cherry, plum, walnut, quince and blueberry.
The two main brands you will find are Soplica, one of the older brands, made in southeastern Poland and Lubelska which again has a wide range of different flavors. Both are worth trying and are an inexpensive way of trying some local flavors.
Polish Vodka in Dubai
There are three main well known brands that you will find in Dubai generally served in pubs and restaurants (although you might not realize that they are Polish brands). Plus I found two more premium brands which you can buy in licensed shops.
The brands are:
Nalewka – a celebration of nobility medicine & family secrets
Nalewka is a traditional Polish alcohol created by macerating ingredients in alcohol (vodka or a neutral spirit). Similar to medicinal tinctures, it is usually 40-45% alcohol by volume. Typical ingredients are fruits and herbs, spices, roots, sugar and honey. Nalwekas are aged unlike traditional liqueurs. Nalewka is currently being registered for national appellation within the European Union which will give it additional credence.
A short history of Nalwekas
The first documented alcoholic herbal tinctures were created by Hippocrates, the “father of medicine” as treatments for illnesses. Over the following centuries this was developed and alcohol was used to preserve the properties of the seasonal herbs and fruits. Sweetened alcoholic tinctures gained popularity in Poland in the 16th century and secret recipes were passed down from generation to generation by the Polish nobility. From the mid to late 1800’s books and recipes were published describing how to make Naleweka ordinary households began to make their own.
A Trip to Nalewki Staropolskie (Old Polish Liquors)
It’s a sunny afternoon in Warsaw and we’re heading out of the city to a private residence which is the HQ for Nalewki Staropolskie, a family business located in a quiet Warsaw suburb. Our private tour starts in a beautiful sunny garden at the back of a large family house rather than in an industrial setting which you might have imagined. While we wait a few moments for our host, we munch on juicy apples, which we pick from the trees, hear birds in the background and I find myself idly stroking one of the family cat as it brushes against my legs – it’s a perfect day and difficult to imagine that this is also a bonded area for customs and excise reasons.
Standing in the garden, we are in the heart of the Nalewki Staropolskie family business where Naleweka is being made using traditional family recipes. We start our tour stood beside a large old traditional fruit press which in is in one corner of the garden slightly hiding larger steel containers full of alcohol at the far end.Our convivial host, Mr Karol Majewski, explains that they only use seasonal, local, organic supplies to make Naleweka. Additionally no additives, or preservatives or flavorings are added. The process itself sounds simple. Fresh fruit, herbs, pine needles etc are sourced from small rural orchards and farms at just the right time. They are then crushed and steeped in alcohol in the large Jars and Demijohns which sit in the grass in front of us. The fruit and alcohol then slowly mature in the summer sun before being stored in cool dark cellars where they continue to develop. Over time the flavors and aroma of the fruit develop and transfer into the alcohol. The process is quite manual, and is overseen by Karol who has over forty years experience of making Nalewka and over three hundred different liquors. The liquor is considered to be a luxury Polish drink and has received many awards and Slow Food recognition. The whole process takes at least three years and it’s clear that it’s a labour of love and passion for the whole family.
On the tables closer to the house are deep red cherries, which are about to be processed, they are sweet and juicy and at the peak of ripeness. We snack on these as we hear how different members of the family are involved in the business.
Let the tasting begin!
After sometime outside we move upstairs to a tasting room where fifteen bottles of different Nalweka are lined up and we begin our tasting.
We start with a very special drink which is made only with four ingredients, water, sugar, alcohol and milk! It’s my first ever alcoholic drink made with milk and it’s a delight! Through careful filtering the drink eventually becomes crystal clear and it’s a real testament of the love, care and attention that’s put into each bottle. As the afternoon progresses, we make our way through tasting every bottle on the table, learn plenty, laugh lots and generally have a fantastic time, with each bottle tasting of the fruit it bears. Most were a hit, but there were a few misses for me, particularly those that tasted more medicinal than my plate could bear!
We left, on a high! Fueled not only by quite a lot of Nalweka, but by the stories and passion which was imparted by our generous host whose enthusiasm was infectious!
In my suitcase A bottle of Four Seasons Nalewka – legendary liquor made with four ingredients, milk, sugar, spirit and lemon. Certified with a Slow Food certificate.
The lighter stuff!
Having read my post above, you might think that Poland is all about strong liquors and spirits. But you would be wrong, that’s only half the story. There is literally something for all palates. Poland also does some pretty good beers and ciders (brief details below). There’s also a growing wine industry and we were lucky to try that during a wine tasting.
I’m covering the wine and Polish brandy in a separate post. You’ll find it below when it’s published).
For those who don’t drink alchohol, you are spoilt for choice with some gorgeous fresh juices, fermented drinks and some great Specialty coffee ….I feel a further post coming soon!
Polish Beer (Piwo)
The typical Polish consumer drinks 92 liters of beer a year, which places them third behind the Czech Republic and Germany! Beer has been brewed for over a thousand years and there are over 100 breweries in Poland including microbreweries as well as larger producers. Popular beers are Żywiec, Okocim and Tyskie but there are also about 500 new brands and styles of beer including many craft beer offerings.
I’m able to sample a few different beers, Złote Pszeniczne, Namysłów and *** whilst I was there, barely making a dent in my 92 liter target!
The artisan Polish cider industry is growing following recent changes in regulations. Smaller producers, who own their own orchard, and produce less than 10,000 liters, are producing some good quality cider made with at least 90% apple juice, no artificial flavorings, sweeteners or carbon dioxide. The result is a natural sweet-and sour tasting cider as the apples contain a higher sugar content. We didn’t sample nearly enough of this, so I’m hoping to go back at harvest time and see how it’s produced. You will often be offered cider by the jug, which is what we sampled when dining at Karakter in Krakow.