Vodka Industrialization and Monopoly
INDUSTRIALIZATION AND MONOPOLY
In the nineteenth century, the new technique of continuous distillation was introduced, making possible the production of purer vodka at much lower prices. The first continuous still was installed in 1871 at the Starogard distillery, which had been founded twenty years earlier. The others quickly fol lowed its example.
Polish distillers continued to make their traditional flavoured vodkas, however, and, as competition among them increased, they expanded their product range, sometimes offering dozens of varieties or more, without counting other flavoured spirits and liqueurs.
The Kasprowicz distillery in Gniezno, for example, had a catalogue of more than eighty-eight different products, including vodkas and liqueurs, at the end of the nineteenth century.
After World War I, Poland once again became independent, after having been occupied for more than a century by Prussians, Russians, and Austrians. In 1919, the young republic created a state monopoly for the production and distribution of vodka, with the goal of re-establishing and maintaining the level of quality. A national company was created in Warsaw that had the exclusive right to produce rectified alcohol and “pure”, unflavoured vodka. Seventeen other distilleries retained the right to make flavoured vodkas as long as they bought their supplies of pure vodka from the national company (this system was re-established after World War II, which had caused enormous destruction to the whole country, including the distilleries).
In 1973, the monopoly was reinforced when all the distilleries were combined into one entity, the Polmos group. The export of Polish brands was entrusted to the Agros group, which already handled other agricultural and food products. In the 1980s, economic problems in Poland reached the point where vodka, like many other food products, was rationed to residents. While stores for foreigners stocked the best of the country’s production (to bring in much-needed foreign currency), the Poles had the right to only a half-bottle per month. Naturally, those who didn’t drink but still received their ration exchanged it for other products.
Clandestine distilleries, which, as in Russia, had always existed to some extent, took off again on both farms and in city apartments. It is even said that the sales of the game “The Little Chemist”, which included a rudimentary coil, boomed at the time, well beyond what could have been accounted for by young Poles’ love for chemistry. After the democratic elections of 1989, which brought down the military dictatorship and marked the end of the socialist regime, the Polish spirits industry was reorganized.
Each of the Polmos group’s twenty-five distilleries became an independent commercial entity, even though the state was still more or less the owner, along with the employees. The brands that already existed on the market could be produced by each of these distilleries without purchasing the rights, as long as the distillery’s name was printed on the label, and they continued to be exported by the Agros group, which was privatized in 1993 and retained the related rights. At the time, however, each of the distilleries was allowed to create new brands and to manages its sales as desired, even for exports. This decision obviously involved the creation of many new brands, and there are now more than a thousand. In addition, new independent distilleries were created alongside those of the Polmos group. The competition was extremely tough since advertising for alcohol was practically prohibited, and taxes amounted to eighty percent of the sales price. From 1989 to 1995, however, the domestic market was closed to foreign vodkas to aid the revival of the Polish industry. As a result, the IDV group quickly concluded agreements with a Polish distillery so it could make Smirnoff vodka in the country.
The growing trend was toward the making of pure, transparent, unflavoured vodkas because they were easier to produce. These products benefited from aggressive marketing, both in Poland and abroad. Today, they represent eighty percent of total production (around fifty million cases per year), against sixty-three percent ten years ago. Traditional vodkas are now seriously threatened, even though they are still produced with the same concern for quality.
With the country’s regained independence, Polish distilleries are now asserting their identity, and many of them are backed up by years of experience.
Located in the south of Poland in the KrakOw region, this small city dominated by an impressive castle is home to the oldest distillery still operating in Poland. Owned successively by several noble families, the estate was equipped with a distillery in 1784 by Duchess Lubomirska. One of her grandsons, Count Alfred Potocki, took possession in 1823 and undertook the production of vodka (especially varieties flavoured with anise), using more modern equipment. His heirs continued his work and also became involved in sales through the opening of stores in Galicia, Austria, and Hungary. The distillery was completely rebuilt in 1911-12 by his grandson Roman, but the war followed and caused major destruction. Then came nationalization and even further damage caused by the retreat of German troops and the advance of the Russian armies. In spite of these setbacks, a good part of the equipment, including the stills, was saved. In the following years, the equipment was regularly modernized, especially the bottling equipment, which reached a daily capacity of 200,000 bottles.
For Lancut, the return of independence meant the continuation of the production of some sixty existing brands (incluKrakowhe major national brands) and the creation of a dozen new products, including the brand Lancut, a transparent pure grain vodka; 2-½ Cross, made according to one of Count Alfred Potocki’s old recipes; the spicy, peppery CK Vodka; and Wisent, flavoured with buffalo grass.
Its long history makes Lancut an interesting place to visit. A distillery museum displays old-fashioned equipment, with explanations of the style and techiques of Lancut vodkas. The museum in the castle where the noble families once lived is also worth a visit.
Kasprowicz has been operating in the small city of Gniezno, east of Poznan (the capital of Poland at the beginning of the Middle Ages), for more than a century. At the end of the nineteenth century, the distillery had a range of nearly one hundred spirits and liqueurs. It owes it fame to Gnesnania Boonekamp, a vodka-based liqueur flavoured with twenty-three different herbs and spices.
Located near Lake Malta, Polmos Distilleries of Poznan (Poznanskie Zaklady Przemyslu Spirytusowego) has been operating for more than seventy years, but the region’s vodka production is much older, going back to at least the sixteenth century.
Since the institution of the state monopoly in 1919, the main role of the Poznan distilleries has been to make rectified eaux-de-vie for other producers. The distilleries have high-performance, highly automated modern equipment and employ around 700 workers.
While it produces some major brands, including Wyborowa, Polonaise, and Krakus, the enterprise also has its own brands, including traditional ones like Kasprowicz, Hartwig-Kantorowicz, and Strzelczyk, and the more recent ones that are allowed by the new system in Poland. Most are transparent vodkas of great purity, like Premium, which is distilled several times and contains forty percent alcohol; Posnanian, also containing forty percent alcohol, which is made with an older technology to reproduce its traditional flavour; and Lodowa, which means “ice” in Polish.
In all, the Poznan Distilleries currently make more than sixty-five different vodkas and other spirits, many of which have received numerous awards both in Poland and abroad.
Grapevines once grew in this region in the west of Poland, not far from the German border, which explains the long-standing presence of distilleries there. LWWG, one of the Polmos group’s distilleries and a descendant of other installations dating back to 1860, has been in Zielona Gora for more than fifty years. Equipped with ultramodern equipment, it makes not only the best-known vodkas in Poland today (Wyborowa and Zubrowka), but also a range of more than one hundred spirits and liqueurs of all types. Recent competition has led it to produce several new brands, including Wodka Krolewska (“royal vodka” in Polish), a vodka of great purity that is not lacking in character, presented in packaging adorned with the symbols of the former Polish kingdoms.