Words by: Simon Difford
Polish vodka is traditionally made from rye and while rye is still the most popular base ingredient, Poland is also noted for its potato vodka. Stobrawa potatoes are favoured as this variety has a high starch content and is therefore easier to ferment. Contrary to popular belief, it is more expensive to produce vodka from potatoes than from grain.
Polish vodka is less frequently made from wheat, barley and oats, and some vodkas are produced from a blend of several different cereal grains. The different grains are usually distilled separately and the resulting distillates then blended to taste.
The history of distilling in Poland is as long and complicated as the nation's own story of occupations, invasions and boundary changes but the first known written appearance of the Polish word 'wódka' is in 1405 in the court documents from the Palatinate of Sandomierz in Poland, which refer to alcohol based medicines and cosmetics. Some claim that Polish vodka was first produced in the 8th century by freezing wine and skimming off the resulting harsh spirit, although to call this product vodka is stretching a point.
In 1546, King Jan Olbracht passed a law which allowed every Polish citizen to make and sell spirits. As a result it became common practice for families to prepare their own vodkas, often flavouring them with fruits and herbs, which helped disguise the rough alcohols resulting from crude distillation in wooden stills. The tradition of flavouring vodka continues in Poland today.
In 1580 the city of Poznań had 498 distilleries and by the end of the 16th century Kraków had become a major centre of vodka production. However, by the early 17th century production in Gdańsk overtook both these cities.
Distilling techniques in the 17th century were still primitive, requiring at least a three-stage pot still distillation process to produce anything like a potable spirit. The first distillate was called 'brantówka', the second 'szumówka' and the third 'okowita' (from aqua vitae). Much of today's knowledge about the production of early Polish vodka comes from the works of three writers; Jerzy Potański in 1614, Jan Paweł Biretowski in 1768 and Jan Chryzostom Simon in 1774.
In the mid-17th century, the Polish nobility (szlachta) were granted a monopoly throughout their territories on the production and sale of vodka, thus concentrating considerable profits into the hands of a privileged few. The most noted of these aristocratic distilleries was established by Princess Lubomirska and later operated by her grandson, Count Alfred Wojciech Potocki. In his 1693 book 'Skład albo skarbiec znakomitych sekretów ekonomii ziemiańskiej' (A Treasury of Excellent Secrets about Landed Gentry's Economy), Jakub Kazimierz Haur, reveals detailed recipes for making vodka from rye.
The process of producing vodka from potatoes for which Poland is now famous was introduced at the beginning of the 19th century and immediately revolutionized the market. The implementation of new technologies later that century also allowed for the production of more refined vodkas, with rectification approaching today's standards introduced in 1871.
Polish vodkas were graded into three categories according to purity: 'Luksusowy', meaning luxury, 'Wyborowy', meaning choice, and 'Zwykly', meaning standard. This nomenclature survives in some Polish vodka brands.
Polmos, an acronym for Polski Monopol Spirytusowy (Polish Spirit Monopoly), was established in 1919 to control the vodka and other spirits industries. Polmos run distilleries were the most modern in the region and the company dominated vodka production in Poland until World War II.
In 1944, state monopoly of the spirits industry was reinforced again under the Spirits Industry Central Board. The Soviet-backed communist government further consolidated and nationalised the Polish vodka industry to create a distilling monopoly that controlled a total of six distilleries, and nineteen compounders which blended and bottled the raw spirits that the distilleries produced.
On 1 January 1973, a countrywide Przedsiębiorstwo Przemysłu Spirytusowego "Polmos" (Distilling Industry Enterprise "Polmos") was established and the state-owned Polish vodka distilleries were each renamed 'Polmos' followed by the name of the town in which they were located, the best known being:
Polmos Belska in the town of Belska
Polmos Białystok (Absolwent and Żubrówka vodkas) in the town of Białystok
Polmos Bielsko-Biała (Extra Żytnia vodka) in the city of Bielsko-Biała
Polmos Józefów (bankrupt put up for sale in 2012) in the town of Józefów
Polmos Konin (closed in 2009) in the town of Konin
Polmos Krakowie (Cracovia vodka) in the city of Kraków
Polmos Łańcut in the town of Łańcut
Polmos Łódź (closed in 2009) in the city of Łódź.
Polmos Lublia in the town of Lublia
Polmos Lublin (now Stock Polska) in the town of Lublin
Polmos Poznan (Wyborowa vodka) in the city of Pozan
Polmos Siedlce (now Podlaska Wytwórnia Wódek producing Chopin vodka) in the town of Siedlce
Polmos Sieradz (Jarzebiak & Ratafia vodkas) in the town of Sieradz
Polmos Starogard Gdański (now Destylarnia Sobieski) in the town of Starogard Gdański
Polmos Szczecin (Starka vodka) in the city of Szczecin
Polmos Toruń (Copernicus vodka) in the city of Toruń
Polmos Warszawie (Spirytus Rektyfikowany) in the city of Warsaw
Polmos Wrocław (Krakus & Abstynent vodkas) in the city of Wrocław
Polmos Zielona Góra (Luksusowa and Siwucha vodka) in the town of Zielona Góra
Polmos Zyrardów (Belvedere) in the town of Żyrardów
The brands created by the various distilleries before the war were also nationalised and recipes had to be shared. This meant that any compounder could produce each and any vodka brand. However, some compounders were better than others, so aficionados would look to buy their preferred brand from a particular Polmos.
The rise of the Solidarity movement and subsequent collapse of the Iron Curtain saw capitalism wash over Poland, and on 15th July 1999 the Polish government privatised the nineteen Polmos compounders and their shared brands. The better compounders ended up with the more sought after brands while the other Polmos were given a year to cease production of the newly privatised brands. There followed an explosion of new vodkas onto the market and today there are around 1,000 Polish vodka brands.
European law specifically recognises Polish Vodka as having a geographical indication with Poland defined as being the country of origin in Annex III of 'Regulation (EC) No 110/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 January 2008 on the definition, description, presentation, labelling and the protection of geographical indications of spirit drinks and repealing Council Regulation (EEC) No 1576/89'. The regulation further stipulates that only two words, written in either Polish or English, may be used as geographical indicators: 'Polska Wódka' and 'Polish Vodka'.
Additionally, in July 2012 Poland's President signed legislation, effective from 1st January 2013, regulating the production, registration and protection of geographical indications of spirits. This stipulates that vodka made in Poland:
▪ Must be produced from ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin obtained from rye, wheat, barley, oat, triticale or potatoes cultivated on Polish territory and that each step of its production take place on Polish territory.
▪ May not contain any additives except water.
▪ May be aged (rested) in order to give the vodka special organoleptic properties.
▪ Flavoured vodka, being vodka with a dominant flavour other than the flavour of raw materials used in its production, may contain natural flavouring compounds, colouring, and no more than 100g per litre of sugar.
More properly known as ‘Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka Czysta de Luxe’, this clear unflavoured version of the popular herbal vodka brand was launched in 2007 and it is now one of the best-selling and fastest growing vodka brands in Poland. Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka translates as ‘bitter vodka for the stomach.’ Clean, faint creamy grain and white pepper.
Originally launched in Poland by the eponymous Dutch distillers, Bols Vodka is now licenced to and produced by Central European Distribution Corporation and is the best-selling brand of premium vodka in Poland. It is described as being “four times distilled” and “charcoal and copper filtered”. Clean, almost neutral nose with faint chalky minerality.
Pronounced ‘Saw-plee-tsa’ and literally meaning ‘Soplica Steel Vodka’, this brand is named after a Lithuanian family of country squires. Soplica Vodka was created by Bolesław Kasprowicz who produced the first bottle of Soplica in 1891. Clean, mineral – after rain fall nose with faint white pepper but little character.
Dębowa, pronounced ‘Dem-Bov-A’, means ‘oak’ in Polish and appropriately the bottle depicts a mature oak tree and contains a thin slither of oak. Some bottles even come encased in oak with an oak screw cap. Clean but characterful with subtle burnt toast, faint oaky vanilla and delicate spice.
Czysta is Polish for ‘crystal’ and this descriptor no the tall triangular bottle of this rye based Polish vodka distinguishes it from its flavoured siblings. Clean, minerally white pepper with faint bread dough.
Made from golden rye grown in Poland’s Podlasie region. The rye is 1st pressure-cooked to create a mash which is left to ferment for 3 days, then distilled using a four column process. At Chopin’s bottling plant in nearby Siedlce, the spirit is hydrated with artesian well water and filtered 5 times White pepper, barbeque charcoal and crusty rye bread and rye dough.
Developed to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of Gdansk this grain based vodka has additional aromatic flavourings. Assertive spirity cracked pepper nose with spruce needles and faint calamine and spearmint.
Although only launched in 1995, within two years Absolwent Vodka became the best-selling vodka brand in its domestic market, Poland, positioned in the mid-price segment. Absolwent, which incidentally translates from Polish as 'graduate', boasts ninth place in the world's top 20 vodka brands. Clean spirity nose with nostril tingling cracked black pepper spice and coal coke mineral notes.
Distilled using a four column process from fermented "Single Estate"-grown Dankowskie Diamond rye and, as the name suggests, is bottled without charcoal filtration. Belvedere Unfiltered is packaged in a glossy black bottle embellished with geld detailing. Wet flint and lightly baked bread with seaside air, faint toasted brazil nuts and aniseed.
Silver Rocks is a Polish vodka distilled from rye by the Polanin Company, a vodka producer established in 1991 and located in Sroda Wielkopolska, a town which lies about 30km away from Poznan. Clean and subdued with toasted nutty rye bread and very faint tinned strawberries.
In Polish, ‘spirytus rektyfikowany’ literally means ‘rectified spirit’ and that’s exactly what this is – high strength ethyl alcohol. Often labelled for export ‘Polish Pure Spirit’, it is sold in three strengths: ‘blue label’ at 57.1% abv, ‘yellow label’ at 79.9% abv and ‘green label’ at 96% abv.
Founded by William Borrell in 2009, Vestal is a series of Polish vodkas. (This rye vodka is labelled simply Vestal Vodka.) You may not have heard of William but you may well have heard his brother, literally, Johnny Borrell is frontman of Razorlight. A splash of water helps reveal Vestal’s nose - reminiscent of rye bread with a thin slither of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.