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A Tribute to Polish Vodka: An Historical Treatise and Sober Analysis

Updated on April 18, 2020

A TRIBUTE TO POLISH VODKA : An historical treatise and sober analysis

I bought a bottle of Polish vodka a while back, and very tasty it was too.

It was called Zubrowka, a genuine Polish vodka, distilled from rye, flavoured with bison grass and apparently a result of a tradition going back to the 14th century.

This was owing it's name to an aromatic grass growing wildly in the eastern part of Poland where bisons live in their natural habitat.

These types of spirits are called 'wódka wytrawna' which means a 'seasoned vodka' and they have a flavour distinctive to the area where they originate. I drank the whole bottle with a friend once and even though it was only 70cl I felt the effects.

It tastes nice with good apple juice but I trust they washed the grass. I didn't feel as dramatic an effect as predicted by one Stefan Falimerz in 1534 who claimed that some vodkas could "increase fertility and awaken lust" on many of its enthusiastic imbibers.

The Battle of Grunwald

Nevertheless it has an important place in history and has been a motivating force in Poland's history and a deciding factor in the outcomes of international conflict.

From far back in 1410 when cargoes of grain heading along the Vistula to the distilleries of Gdansk incurred the wrath of the Teutonic Knights. Battle took place at Grunwald where a Polish-Lithuanian army 30,000 strong defeated the bold knights and saved the domestic industry. A helluva party ensued with manly drinking games where the mighty Poles outdrank the Lithuanians hardest alcoholics.

But a turning point was the beginning of large-scale production at the end of the 16th century and was originally monopolised by the nobility of Poland. They were called the 'szlachta', who made a fortune in profits whilst keeping the peasants inebriated and incapable of revolution.

Two drunk horses fighting outside a pub

tinyfroglet @ Flickr
tinyfroglet @ Flickr

The invaders

This was too much of a temptation to the predatory Swedish who took over the country in 1655 and drank the place dry. Once they sobered up they were thrown out by the Poles only 5 years later.

However the lesson was learned and the Prussians, Russians and Austrians ganged up to muscle in on the business in 1795. They sent hand-picked soldiers from their élite teetotal regiments and succeeded in splitting the country between them.

The market was revolutionised by the introduction of potato vodka in the 19th century and much was drunk after World War One when the country finally gained it's independence from foreign tyrants.

But such is the power and influence of Polish vodka that even in the 20th century it is no wonder the Germans and Russians once again fought over the country to get their hands on the stuff. A truly wonderful spoil of war. But of course alcohol induces aggression in the average male and most especially in the bloodthirsty warrior class.

Bottle fights in Bavaria

For example, the reason that the Allies never made it that far east during World War II was because the Americans were after the German beer. So now you know why they sped towards Berlin so quickly. At the moment I'm reading a book about the downfall of Berlin during the war and seemingly it's based on a true story, albeit a sequel.

Many fine breweries were earmarked for strategic re-capture and the gallant Americans fought hard and bravely to succeed to recover the treasured golden brew. Fighting was so fierce that close hand-to-hand combat took place and in the Hacker-Pschorr Brewery in Munich, G.I's and Wehrmacht troops actually engaged in bottle fights.

So fanatical were the Germans that individual wrestling matches took place until the bottles were eventually grasped from their desperate hands.

Patton out with the dog after a few beers

Photo by Lisa @ Flickr
Photo by Lisa @ Flickr

Patton on the Pilsner

Coming from the west of course was General George C. Patton, who was exceptionally fond of the Pils and absolutely choking for a frothy lager. Nobody was going to stand in his way, hence the expression 'going out for a right tanking' I do believe. But he did lack the social graces as well as slapping his privates.

On a war-time visit to Scotland he was in a local bar and found out it was a Socialist pub. He pulled out his pistol and started firing into the roof screaming "Commie sons of bitches" at the top of his lungs. Three people playing billiards upstairs were shot and slightly wounded and two cup matches were abandoned.

Apparently this is not unusual, however normally the bullets come in the traditional horizontal direction from within the same room.

Downstairs they thought he was shouting for a fight and he was instantly attacked by two local fiddlers of Germanic descent known as "The Stradivarius Artists" who had never forgiven him for taking Berlin, which he hadn't.

Anyway, to make a short story long he got back into his tank and invaded the Scottish county of Ayrshire, taking the town of Irvine on the way. That gave him the matching pair, except it hadn't, and the rights to "White Christmas" which it didn't but could have allowed him to retire on the financial proceeds despite the fact that he never took Berlin.

Then there was the car accident over in Germany in December 1945 which proved fatal to the general. It raised yet another conspiracy theory about projectiles being fired at his neck and the Russians eventually finishing him off in hospital. Incidentally, no-one involved in the crash was breathalysed by the local Mannheim Police nor asked to recite the alphabet backwards.

The Fool Monty

The Brits on the other hand were more partial to a nice Burgundy or Chardonnay and that's why General Montgomery kept delaying the tank advance. What was regarded as a classic pincer movement in the Falaise pocket near Caen was actually an attempt to recapture the 'Arpents du Soleil' vineyards before the German's farewell party emptied the contents down their throats.

As it was the Allies triumphed and they secured over 3,000 bottles of Negly Cuvée and Caubernet Sauvignon. The famous General was teetotal but it is said that he would relent and enjoy the delicate flavour and fragrance of a glass of 1934 Beaujolais when writing his post-war memoirs.

He was certainly witnessed at a wine-tasting evening in Sicily during Operation Husky which began the Italian campaign in July of 1943. This was the night when he and General Patton famously fell out over a bottle of Zibibbo and they never really reconciled after that.

An un-bombed hamlet dans la France

isamiga76 @ Flickr
isamiga76 @ Flickr

The Normandy Campaign

But in the momentous summer of 1944 the scenery was far more picturesque in France too, or what was left of it. Monty enjoyed touring on top of a Churchill tank when the weather was good, taking snapshots for his scrapbook and writing up rough notes for his memoirs.

If he felt the storyline was ever sagging he would order a local advance to liven up the action or aggravate his American counterparts which always tickled his fancy.

He would then have fresh material and write up the battle scenes that evening. But it was most difficult to frame a photo because of the obliterated remains of buildings and the regular shrapnel of incoming mortars.

He chatted with one of his Majors about the history and ancient architecture of the Normandy countryside that they were passing through.

It led to a mild disagreement;

"I wonder how old these ruins are?" asked Major Trouserpress

"Oh! perhaps 500 years or so I shouldn't wonder" replied Monty

"Really! Is that all?" said the Major, "I thought they might be Roman"

"No!" Monty disagreed, "They seem more late medieval to my eyes"

"Are you sure?" said the Major, "They're quite classical in style"

"Definitely 1400's" insisted Monty, "And that's an order"

"Yes sir!" agreed Major Trouserpress.


"Ah! Here comes a local chap" said the Major "Let's ask him"

"Very well" said Monty "But the order still stands"

"Yes sir!"

"Excuse me monsieur!" asked Monty,


"Can you tell me how old these ruins are"

"What ruins?"

"Those ruins here"

"Monsieur!! Zat was my friggin village!"

The post-war architecture of rural Normandy

Allie Caulfield @ Flickr
Allie Caulfield @ Flickr

The Eastern Front

Anyway, getting back to Poland and it's bison water. I'm sure it lost Germany the eastern front, even though the Nazis could be really mean sods and bad tempered with a drink in them.

At the end their determined last stand was in vain and they suffered greatly in the retreat as many were too out of their face to run. They were captured in their thousands since the Russians found it hard to aim at staggering figures through their gun-sights

Those in vehicles fared little better and 876 German soldiers were arrested for drunk-driving. This is a record that still stands today. The bold Policja were obviously more diligent than their counterparts over in Mannheim.

Drunk German soldiers before the attack

Foxtongue @ Flickr
Foxtongue @ Flickr

The fall of Communism

But, in more modern times I always wondered why the Solidarity Trade Union was pronounced 'Solidarinosch'. Now I know that Lech Walesa liked to get hammered with the lads down the pub in between a few games of dominoes, the weekly quiz and critical discussions on the Communist Manifesto.

"Sho! What ish the capital of Venezuela then?" asked one of the quiz team

"I have absholutely no idea" said Lech, "Ish it Beunosh Arish"


"I shaid ish it Booshin Arshes"

"He'sh had enough"

"Never mind the shtupid quiz" interrupted another of the lads, "What'll we call the new union , Lech?"

"Yeah, you're good at coming up with names" said yet another

"Well palsh, Howsh about cawlin it Sholidarinoschhhhh?" Lech replied,


"Sholidarinoschhhhh!!!" he repeated

"Yeah! Why not" they all chimed, "Shounds good"

"Yeah!" he said "Hic!!!!!, Now pour me another triple Chopin and none of that cheap shtuff"

The Secret Police even took part in the general knowledge quiz and usually won although nobody knew who they were. Even they didn't know who they were and weren't allowed to ask! But they were terrible cheats, as revealed one night when the team captain was seen talking to the ashtray.

Before a psychiatrist was summoned the barstaff tumbled that he was speaking to his mates who were in a room across the road transmitting the answers back.

Communism is truly evil.

But over 20 years later General Jaruzelski was getting his come-uppance for the imposition of Martial Law. One of his most heinous dictates in the era of the 1980s crackdown was to impose vodka rationing on the civil population.

Served him right, he should have stayed off those bottles of Pan Tadeusz, a smooth and delicate vodka to drink but which wreaked its revenge in the morning.

He was, and still is, noted for his signature dark sunglasses. The perfect cover for a hangover. However, after the victory of the Solidarity movement most Polish distilleries were privatised in the 1990s leading to the plethora of different brands available today.

Places like Krakow, Poznan and Gdansk thrived under the new freedoms.

A hungover Jaruselski with vodka in a teacup

colasito77 @ Flickr
colasito77 @ Flickr

Final thoughts

Of course much Polish vodka is made from potatoes which might explain the strange effect on mind and body. But I think it's probably more to do with the alcohol in it rather than the strength of the root vegetables. That's my theory and I'm sticking to it. Is that why they call bourbon sour mash? Sounds very unpleasant.

If I was you my friends, instead of adding the vodka to apple juice I would just have the apple juice. I would stick with the fermented apples brewed by The Wurzels on Merrydown Farm. Don't be put off by rumours that they chew the apples and then spit them out into the vats.

They brush their dinner manglers at least once a year and the loose tobacco keeps them clean anyway. Any complaints then write to them but remember to use small words in very big letters.

So there you have it, the secret history of these vodkas and their role in the major events of Europe in the past 700 years.

Invasions, revolutions and wars have hinged on its potent promises and explosive effects. Beer, wine, whisky and gin have their rightful place in the annals of conflict and the history of nation-states but none more so than Polish vodka.

It's amazing what you can do with apples, potatoes and a bit of bison grass.


Photo by iwona kellie @ Flickr Creative Commons
Photo by iwona kellie @ Flickr Creative Commons

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