Common though vodka is as the tipple for sealing friendships, Poles and vodka are uneasy bedfellows. I interviewed Łukasz Klesyk, a drinks critic, columnist and deputy editor of the Polish Kuchnia food mag to find out why.
What’s the relationship between Poles and vodka?
Łukasz Klesyk: It’s complicated. We are proud to have mocna głowa (a strong head). We can drink a lot without getting drunk. But vodka is still something embarrassing. I reckon that’s due to two things stemming from the communist era. Before 1990, there was the non-stop propaganda about “vodka evil”, “vodka monster” and “alcoholism tragedy” to show that the ruling regime was a “good father” caring about its people. The second reason was though we exported vodka, it was never promoted well as icons, like Scotch whisky or Mexican tequila. As a nation, we have something in our brains telling us that Made-in-Poland cannot be really good if it’s not well known in the West.
It’s been over two decades since the baddies left office. Is Polish vodka enjoying rosier times? We still have an idiotic anti-alcoholism law forbidding advertising of spirits. Partly due to this, vodka is not present in papers, magazines and TV. There are practically no reviews of new products. People drink a lot of vodka in Poland, but they know very little about it. If you don’t know something, how can you be proud of it?
Is there a way to instill the pride? Our ultra-premium brands are well reviewed and famous “in the West” lately, so I hope for a change in the attitude. However, even the top brands are still not trendy among Polish celebs. They want wine, wine, wine. They could do good PR for Polish vodka in our country by drinking it responsibly at public meetings, such as movie premieres. I reckon that would help our national pride in vodka and pave a new way of drinking “good and a little” instead of “bad and a lot”.
At least vodka has a guaranteed gig at weddings. The toasts [to the bride and groom, family and friends] are practically always with vodka. At weddings, I drink vodka with everyone and shout, “Gorzko! gorzko!” (“Bitterly! Bitterly!”). That’s to force the bridal pair to kiss. “Bitter” is about vodka and it’s believed that the kiss sweetens it. There are the funny “Gorzka Wódka” (Bitter Vodka) wedding song and many other tunes with vodka as the protagonist. As you can see, vodka at Polish weddings is not only a beverage, it has cultural significance, too.
What is this “wódka weselna” (wedding vodka)? It’s the usual vodka with a special label or bottle produced by many distilleries. There’s one distillery that offers wedding vodka with 20 different labels. You can buy it anywhere. If you like arts and crafts, you could get ordinary vodka, pour it to clear bottles and paste on customized wedding labels.
Why gulp the drink down and not sip it slowly? Take a glass of cheap vodka and try to sip it – good luck! In the beginning, vodka was the ordinary beverage for the masses. The producers didn’t care about purification, filtering and so on. The taste was awful but people enjoyed the alcohol strength. Thus, gulping vodka is really a habit borne out of necessity. In some countries, like the US, Americans drink it in cocktails, so you can sip it. This doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy pure vodka. If quality is good and temperature is low, you can have pleasure with vodka structure, purity and “warm effect” in your mouth and gullet, and feel the aromas and tastes. But that’s looking at vodkas costing at least zł. 50 per 0.7 liter.
What’s good vodka these days? In 1996, a completely new category appeared. Belvedere was the first ultra-premium vodka in the world designed for the American market. It’s extremely pure. The quality of the grain and water, and production process are controlled strictly. You can use it for cocktails, gulp it cold with pleasure, and even sip it on the rocks. Now, there are a few brands similar to it, such as Chopin, Potocki, Paderewski or Kania. The last one is designed by former Time journalist John Borell.
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