Rye & Harvesting
The Polmos Żyrardów distillery lies at the edge of the Mazovian Plain (Nizina Mazowiecka), a vast flat region west of Warsaw where the Dańkowskie Złote or ‘Gold’ strain of rye has been cultivated and inter-crossed over the centuries to thrive in the fertile soil.
Belvedere Vodka is made only using this locally sourced grain, mostly grown by farmer distillers – known as agricultural distillers. Previously state owned, these now family-owned farms grow and harvest the rye, then ferment and distil it to produce raw alcohol which is sent by tanker to Polmos Żyrardów where it is rectified to the quality required to make Belvedere Vodka.
The photograph above is of Jan Skwierawski standing in a field newly sown with Dańkowskie Złote rye. With his wife Barbara they run their farm distillery in Bartężek and are one of the main suppliers of raw alcohol to Polmos Żyrardów.
This first, or ‘agricultural’, distillation, takes place at a number of agricultural distilleries but Polmos Żyrardów particularly favours and buys raw rye spirit from two of these. These farm distilleries start harvesting the Dańkowskie Gold rye in late July and finish around a month later. They then store the grain which they distil over the following eleven months of the year.
At the end of the communist era (1989) there were some 900 working agricultural distilleries in Poland but now only some sixty survive, but these are far more technically advanced and produce more alcohol than the 900 inefficient state-run distilleries did.
After harvesting, the Dańkowskie Gold rye is simmered in a vessel, which is basically a vast pressure cooker, to form a mash resembling a thick porridge. Amylase and diastase enzymes are added to aid the breakdown of starches into sugars and so speed the fermentation. Distillers’ yeast is added and the resulting fermentation produces a beer-like wort at 7-8% alcohol/volume. This is distilled in a column still to produce raw rye spirit at 92% alcohol/volume which is shipped to Polmos Żyrardów.
Organoleptic and chemical analysis of samples submitted by these agricultural distillers enables Polmos Żyrardów to ensure they receive raw spirit of the highest quality.
The Polmos Zyrardów Distillery where the raw spirit is rectified
The raw rye spirit is diluted to 45% alcohol/volume using the purified water and then distilled and rectified using a three-column process with a capacity of 23,000 litres per day. Firstly a 250,000 litre pre-distillation column removes acids, esters and aldehydes. A second rectification column removes the remaining fusel oils and produces a spirit at 96.5% alcohol/volume. Finally, a third purifying column removes any remaining off notes or odours from the spirit: hence the claim that Belvedere is “quadruple distilled”, once at the agricultural distillery followed by the three-column process at Polmos Żyrardów.
The pure spirit is stored in tanks for a minimum of two days to allow the spirit to rest before being hydrated to bottling strength with the distillery’s own purified artesian well water. This marrying process takes place slowly over several days. The vodka then undergoes filtration through activated charcoal and cellulose particle filers prior to bottling.
The whole Belvedere production process is designed to produce a very pure spirit that still retains character: Belvedere is distilled and filtered just enough to retain all the character of Dańkowskie Złote rye.
In November 2003, Belvedere launched two flavoured vodkas, Cytrus and Pomarańcza. Unusually, these, and subsequent Belvedere flavours are made by infusion and re-distillation rather than by simply cold compounding with flavour essences.
Belvedere were keen to flavour their vodka by infusing natural fruits and other botanicals in Belvedere rye spirit and then redistil, rather than simply adding commercial flavour essences. The team at Żyrardów did not have experience of this type of distillation, nor the necessary pot still, so worked with experts in France which has centuries of tradition of infusion and re-distillation to produce eau-de-vie. Belvedere vodka at 96% alcohol/volume which had undergone all four distillations but not yet been hydrated or filtered was sent by tanker from Żyrardów to the Distillerie des Terres Rouges (literally the ‘distillery of the red earth’) near the picturesque 16th century village of Collonges-la-Rouge in France’s Limousin region. There the vodka was infused and re-distilled with the specified fruits and other botanicals and the finished distillate shipped back to Żyrardów to be finished and bottled as Belvedere.
After seven years of working with the French distillers, the Polish team knew a thing or two about infusing and re-distilling vodka, and with the backing of owners Moët Hennessy, invested in the necessary pot stills and equipment to bring the infusion process back to Żyrardów, so negating the need to ship vodka to France and back. In any case, many of the flavours use Polish-sourced berries and other botanicals so bringing the infusion process back to Żyrardów also has the advantage of this process occurring nearer to were these are harvested.
The berries, dried and frozen citrus peels and other botanicals are infused for a number of weeks in Belvedere vodka. The infusion time varies according the type of fruit and the time of year. These botanical infusions are then slowly distilled in a 1,500 litre capacity copper pot still at a low temperature in order to maintain the intensity of aroma. Each Belvedere flavour is made using several different infusions and these are distilled separately and then blended together. The blending of distillates from a number of different infusions is essential to achieve a consistent flavour and overcome variations from different harvest and batches of fruit. Only when then tasting panel is happy with the infusion will it be used to make Belvedere Vodka.
The infused distillates are blended with more Belvedere vodka at 96% alcohol/volume before being hydrated back to bottling strength with the distillery’s own purified artesian well water. Unlike the original Belvedere Vodka these flavours are not charcoal filtered, and are only very delicately filtered through cellulose particle filters prior to bottling. This ensures essential oils which carry the fruit flavours and give mouth-feel are retained.
Water & Hydration
Polmos Żyrardów has its own two artesian wells from which it sources all the water used in the distilling process. These wells lie one mile from distillery, one 41.5 meters deep; the other 50.5 meters deep. They are constantly monitored by security systems and not shared or used for any other purpose other than the production of Belvedere Vodka. The water in these wells has traveled through 17 ‘quaternary terraces’, formed when Poland’s glaciers melted.
The artesian well-water passes through an 11 step purification system with eight quality controls, including reverse osmosis to remove all dissolved salts, such as sodium, chloride, calcium carbonate and calcium sulphate. The aim is to produce pure, tasteless water, which will not affect the flavour of the finished vodka.
Steps to produce 100% pure water (hardness = 0, pH =7.4) include:
• Water oxidation and sterilization - water compounds are broken down for easier filtration using sodium hypo chloride ‘bath’.
• Mineral filtration – six filters composed of different mineral deposits.
• First filtration – two-step mineral filter. Removes iron, manganese and other minerals.
• Softening – a column containing ‘ion-changing resign’ removes magnesium and calcium compounds (found in ‘hard water’).
• Second filtration – two filters with layers of active carbon remove colour, taste and odour.
• Micron filtration – two micron filters remove particles larger than 5 microns.
• Reverse osmosis – extracts remaining salts and removes 99% of impurities including bacteria.
Many vodkas require carbon or other forms of heavy filtration which strip out both mouthfeel and flavour. In contrast Belvedere is very gently filtered just to ensure clarity but maintain the vodka’s body and flavour.
To make Belvedere flavours the heart of the fruit distillate is blended with Belvedere’s unique filtered water and the rectified base spirit. Crucially this is then rested large tanks for two to three weeks to allow the reactions which occur when water is added to alcohol to settle. Much the same as you let the atoms in microwaved food calm down below eating or rest a roast before carving.
Once the flavoured vodka is fully rested it is gently filtered using a two-phase filtration system. A mechanical filter removes microscopic particles bigger than 50 microns then a carbon filter removes microscopic particles bigger than 4 microns. The use of a broad porosity filter ensures the rich fruit flavours in the vodka are not lost.
The filter pictured above may look small but it can filter up to 10 cubic square litres of spirit every hour.
Bottle & Bottling
Belvedere’s distinctive bottle is decorated in Poland using a multi-stage process. Firstly a rubber sticker is applied to protect part of the bottle and then acid is used to ‘frost’ the exposed surface. The protective sticker is removed to expose the clear window in the now otherwise frosty bottle. A four-step screen-printing process is then used to apply the text, the tree, the word ‘vodka’ in blue and then the snow on the tree and the barcode. Finally the bottles are then sterilized in an oven at 700° C.
Bottling takes place at the distillery, so ensuring Polmos Żyrardów is in full control of the quality of the finished vodka. A combination of state-of-the-art bottling machinery and hand finishing is employed, with the blue strip stamp over the top of every bottle applied by hand. Although a small detail, the blue colour of this strip is symbolic. This is the colour of the flowers of the flax plant, in memory of the importance of the linen industry, a cloth woven from flax, to the town of Żyrardów, the home of Belvedere.