Vodka in Poland: Authenticity and Diversity
POLAND: AUTHENTICITY AND DIVERSITY
Along with its powerful neighbour, Russia, Poland is the “other” vodka-producing country, where vodka holds just as important a place in the history, culture, and daily life of the people. This is a country with a troubled history; it has been mistreated and even dismantled several times by the powers that surround it, including Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Yet Poland has been able to preserve its identity through its language, its Catholicism-and its vodkas. And, while the damage caused by many wars and occupations regularly led to the destruction of the country’s distilleries, they were always reconstructed and the ancestral recipes preserved.
Of all the vodka-producing countries, including Russia, Poland doubtlessly offers the widest diversity of vodka styles. Today, there are more than one thousand different brands and varieties, a result of the Polish producers’ ability to maintain and even rediscover traditional methods, but also because they were always willing to innovate and make use of the latest techniques and trends. This explains why vodka lovers can always count on making interesting new discoveries in Poland. They will not be disappointed.
In Polish, as in Russian, the word “vodka” is a diminutive of woda (the “w” is pronounced like a “v”), meaning “water”, or a sort of concentrated water. The word has been used in Poland for many centuries, perhaps even since the eighth century, and throughout the Middle Ages, but it was mostly applied to medicinal preparations, or what might be called elixirs. The art of distillation was not yet known, and the alcohol content was low-around sixteen percent. These recipes, passed on mostly by monks, were used primarily to preserve plants and spices, with the goal of magnifying their therapeutic properties.
Sometime in the sixteenth century, spirits that were distilled at least twice began to appear in Poland. They were called gorzalka, a contraction of gorzale vino, which meant “burnt wine”, and were made with the same techniques used in the production of the first spirits in the Netherlands. At the time, Poland had access to wines made in the south of the country, mostly from the Krakow region, for use in this new method. The beverage was also known as okovita, from the Latin aqua vitae, or “water of life”.
Grains, especially rye, had been used for some time in Poland to make beer, and its producers probably came up with the idea of distilling it, as the Dutch had done with wine.
Although there is a text dated 1405 and written in Polish that mentions the word “vodka”, the name could not refer to a strong alcoholic beverage because the production technique was not known at the time. That does not stop Poland, however, from claiming to be the country that invented vodka — a way of affirming its pre-eminence over Russia.
This quarrel makes little sense in the historical context and serves mainly to fuel current national rivalries. What is certain is that the discovery of double distillation spread throughout Northern
Europe in the space of a few decades at the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth, at the same time that what were once medicinal preparations were transformed into beverages for everyday consumption.
Both vodka and gorzalka were at first used as medicines taken internally or as unguents for external use. They were also used as perfumes, cosmetics, and even as aftershaves. The tradition of making these preparations from all kinds of plants and spices continued in Poland for centuries, providing it with a national heritage and unequaled expertise, and explaining the great diversity and quality of today’s Polish vodkas.
In a 1534 treatise, the herbalist Stefan Falimiz listed seventy-two different types of herb vodkas with a wide variety of uses. These preparations were an important component of the home pharmacy. They were stored in a locked chest whose key was kept by the mistress of the house. In the richer families, one of the maids was the guardian of the chest.
Vodka, gorzalka, and okovita coexisted in the Polish language at least until the end of the seventeenth century, before “vodka” won out definitively. This is how the Frisian Verdun described the Poles in 1672: “They especially appreciate the taste of vodka, which they call gorzalka in Polish and crematum in Latin. Even the most important aristocrats carry it in little boxes so they can drink it at any time..
Beginning in the sixteenth century, the distillation of spirits, mainly from grains, grew rapidly. At first, the authorities encouraged the practice. A royal edict of 1546 authorized all Polish people to make their own spirits. Soon there were distilleries everywhere, especially in Krakow (the capital of Poland at the time), Gdansk, and Poznan. This liberalism did not last long, however; in 1572, the king gave a few nobles monopoly rights over distillation in exchange for tax revenues. In addition, the consumption of vodka was limited to those taverns that belonged to the aristocracy. This did not, however, impede growth: in 1580, there were forty-nine stills in the city of Poznan alone.
In 1595, Reverend Prowodowski noted that “breweries and distilleries have been built everywhere, and they consume not only all the grain available, but also whole villages”. A historian, Mariusz Wolanski, recounts that “the artisans of Poznan reimburse their debts to the merchants of Wroclaw with vodka. For example, a cobbler in Poznan, Fryderyck Szolc, had to reimburse in vodka a debt of 290 florins that he owed to Tomasz Gröer, a Wroclaw merchant”.
The great estates and many farms were equipped with stills of varying quality that produced enough alcohol for the family and its servants.
Faced with such growth, royals and aristocrats, the only ones in a position to profit from vodka consumption, raised vodka taxes, which reached ten percent of the sales price in the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century, vodka became an important element of trade in Poland. From the production centers, vodka was sent via the Gdansk port to Saint Petersburg, Denmark, and England, and by river to Austria. Silesian merchants carried it along the roads to Prussia, and documents show exports of Polish vodka to Moldavia, Hungary, and as far away as the Black Sea.
At the time, distillation techniques were improving, and vodka began to be distilled an increasing number of times to enhance its quality. Rye was the most common raw material, followed by wheat and occasionally plums. Potatoes were not commonly used until the eighteenth century. King John III Sobieski brought them back from Austria after his victory against the Turks during the battle of Vienna in 1683, but for several decades, potatoes remained a simple curiosity that were seldom used until German settlers were invited to take over underexploited estates by King Stanislaw II Poniatowski, who was also the elector of Saxony. They taught Polish peasants how to grow potatoes, which became a popular raw material. Varieties were selected that were well-adapted to distillation because of their high starch content, but rye continued to dominate in the production of vodka.
Distillation was done in at least three stages. The results of the first were called brantowka, the second prostka (simple) and the third okowita (water of life). The okawita, whose degree of alcohol did not exceed seventy percent, was then diluted with water to obtain prosta wodka (simple vodka), also called ordynaryjna (ordinary), which contained thirty percent alcohol or less.
To improve its quality, the vodka was distilled again, most often with herbs, plants, or spices, to obtain alembikowka. This technique helped to mask imperfections, since filtering techniques were not yet known. The process was based on the knowledge gained from the making of medicinal potions in the Middle Ages. One of the oldest and most famous was zlota woda, the golden vodka made in Gdansk under the Goldwasser brand, name. Made from a strong vodka flavoured with anise, various herbs and spices, and sandalwood and roses, it was sweetened with sugar, and a few flakes of gold were even added. But there were also many counterfeit versions that imitated well-known varieties and were sold at lower prices.
To strengthen these vodkas, pepper, various herbs (some of which, notably “wolf berries”, were poisonous), and even nitric acid and other dangerous substances were added to them. Overall, however, the quality of Polish vodkas was widely appreciated in a growing number of European countries, and commercial rivalries with Russia and other vodka-producing countries quickly intensified. Jean Pasek, a seventeenth-century Polish writer, said of Russian vodka that it was “of such mediocre quality that it would kill a goat forced to drink it”.
The end of the eighteenth century saw the creation of real industrial distilleries like that of J.A. Baczewski in Lvov (at the time located in Poland, now in Ukraine), now operated by the Polmos distillery of Starogard; the Lancut distillery, founded in 1784 by Princess Lubomirska, which still exists two centuries later; and the Warsaw distillery, created at the beginning of the nineteenth century by Leon Nowachowicz, which quickly became a leader in Polish vodka production.