The great whiskies of Scotland.
And, yes, the great vodkas of Poland. Russia, too. But we have to start with Poland.
Think about it: you can grow Cabernet Sauvignon in many places, but it seems to taste best from Bordeaux.
You can malt barley, ferment it, and distill it just about anywhere, but it seems to taste best from Scotland.
You can put grain whiskey into new charred oak and mature it wherever you want, but it seems to taste best from Kentucky.
What do all of those places have in common? They’ve been making alcohol for a very, very long time and each has become the standard of quality for the product they specialize in.
Now let’s talk about Poland.
I’ve consumed a lot of vodka in my life, from California, to Sweden, to Iceland, and beyond. In my humble opinion, the very best vodkas in the world are Polish. There any many who consider Russia to be the motherland of vodka distillation, but vodka as we know it has been produced in Poland for more than 600 years and it's believed that vodka originated there. Just because vodka likely originated in Poland, doesn’t mean that it can never be improved upon. It’s just to say that, 600 years later, I personally haven’t tasted any improvements. As is the case with the other great alcoholic beverages of the world, Polish vodka is the result of time-tested know-how. It is the standard for others to follow.
Why is Polish vodka so good? Because it’s often clean, vibrant, and textural on the palate, balanced in its mouthfeel, and of a distinctive character. Because vodka is such a neutral spirit, I’ve always used bottled mineral water versus tap water as a comparison when helping consumers. Most of us can taste the difference between Evian and the kitchen sink, even if we can’t necessarily describe it. Yet, it’s for that reason that writers and “cultivated” drinkers in the age of critical flavor analysis dismiss vodka as pedestrian; an industrial spirit not worthy of any serious attention (not unlike professors who ignore any topic that won’t net them a publishing deal). But to ignore vodka is to completely discount a drinking culture that dates back centuries and includes hundreds of millions of participants. As Keifer Sutherland says in The Lost Boys: “You don’t like rice? How could a billion Chinese people be wrong?”
Polish vodka is in turn Polish history. The world's first written mention of the drink and of the word "vodka" was in 1405 from Akta Grodzkie in the court documents from the Palatinate of Sandomierz in Poland. There is evidence of large-scale distillation in Poland by the end of the 1500s. It wasn't anything modern or advanced like we have today, but it was definitely happening and rye was the grain of choice. In his book A Treasury of Excellent Secrets about Landed Gentry's Economy, Kraków, 1693, Jakub Kazimierz Haur gave detailed recipes for making vodka from rye. The debate is still on in some circles whether Poland is truly the motherland, as legend has it that a monk named Isidore from Chudov Monastery inside the Moscow Kremlin made a recipe of the first Russian vodka in the early 1400s. I’m not getting involved. I’m just here to tell you what I know about Poland.
At Polmos Zyrardów distillery, west of Warsaw, they've been producing vodka since 1910 using only Dankowskie Zlote, a strain of rye that has been cultivated and farmed for centuries within the soil. Polmos Zyrardów is where Belvedere vodka is made today and it is distilled only from this locally sourced grain. Belvedere is not only a great example of fine Polish vodka, it’s also a brand taking serious steps to further distinguish the category by deconstructing its most important elements. In 2018, the company released two of the coolest, most beautiful vodkas I’ve ever tasted: the Lake Bartezek and Smogóry Forest single estate editions, showcasing the differences between vodkas made with rye from specific regions.
Personally, I think the idea of terroir in vodka is a tricky one, namely because you can’t easily link specific flavors in the glass to specific characteristics in the Polish earth. It’s not like Chablis, where you match its distinct oyster shell character to the chalky, limestone-rich Chablisiènne soil. At a premium price, Belvedere may have overestimated the interest of their core clientele in serious vodka geekery, but I certainly appreciate it. More important than any perceptible terroir—in my opinion—is that both vodkas are distinctively different from one another and, perhaps most important, both are simply immaculate. What that says to me as a drinker is: you can make vodka from rye in this part of Poland, or in that part of Poland, and it’s going to taste incredible. It’s clear from tasting both editions that there’s something special about Polish grains. There’s something special about Polish water. There’s something special about Polish vodka—period.
What makes Polish vodka so special? It could be a commitment to standards, or maybe the belief that vodka is more than simply taking high-proof grain spirit and rectifying it until it’s neutral. Vodka is serious business in Poland, unlike in America where it’s simply tolerated as a necessary cash grab. Whereas many gin distilleries I've visited purchase their neutral grain spirit from the general market, often knowing little about its origin, most Polish vodka producers work closely with both the farmers and the agricultural distilleries from which they contract. The quality of the grains is important both to the distillation process and the resulting flavor, even if the resulting spirit is neutral in character. As an example, Dankowskie winter rye has been cultivated for over 100 years and only grown in the Mazovian plains of western Poland. This grain is cherished for its usually high starch content (around 65% vs. the standard 50-55% for generic rye) which makes it perfect for distillation.
Winter rye is any breed of rye planted in the fall to provide ground cover for the winter. It actually grows during any warmer days of the winter, when sunlight temporarily brings the plant to above freezing, even while there is still snow on the ground. It’s a rye that is climatically perfect for the colder parts of Poland and eastern Ukraine, thereby giving the region a speciality in terms of quality grain. The skill in producing quality Polish vodka lies in the distiller’s ability to draw out the positive characteristics of that grain. In terms of the raw material hierarchy, rye tops the list due to its comparative scarcity when compared to other grains. It also makes the most elegant and ethereal ryes, in my opinion, but we’ll talk about potatoes and other grains in an upcoming post.
If a grain is being distilled until it is technically neutral in flavor, then the water used to proof down the spirit will play a big role in the ultimate purity of that flavor. Most Polish distilleries have their own underground wells that are often protected and used solely for the purpose of distillation and dilution. As the team at Belvedere once told me:
Water represents 60% of a bottle of Belvedere, the quality and consistency must be assured. This is why the land we draw the water from is owned and protected and the water source itself is not mechanically aided. This ensures the water delivered to the distillery in an entirely closed, acid resistant stainless steel pipes is as unadulterated as possible. A premium water source is only part of the equation when it comes to producing a premium spirit, particularly for vodka. A water that is pure, soft and unadulterated that is used to emphasize a premium distillate suggests that the spirit in question is something worth emphasizing.
Believe it or not, Polish vodka is actually one of the most regulated types of spirit in existence. All of the base materials—either rye, wheat, or potatoes—must be Polish in origin, the water must come from Poland, and the product must be distilled in Poland. European law also recognizes Polish vodka as having its own geographical appellation, further stating that it may not have further additives besides water (this does not count for "flavored" vodka, of course, which is its own category).
So, yes, there’s something about Polish vodka that stands out from the pack. We’ll dig more into that later on.