• Posted by Elina OLague on April 17th, 2009, 5:15 PM

    One of the great pleasures of being the owner of Warszawa—the only Polish restaurant in Santa Monica, California, and one of very few in all of Los Angeles—is introducing people not only to my homeland’s cuisine but also to our unusual cocktails. Some of the tastiest, and most interesting, are those made with Polish vodkas.

    In Poland’s long and heavy winters, a little alcohol has been a must to keep spirits up. And for millennia, the country’s fertile lands have produced an abundance of different types of grains including rye, buckwheat, and oats, among others. These grains were used to distill alcohol that was flavored not only with a variety of herbs, but also exotic spices, because Poland was right in the middle of the famous spice trail from Asia.

    The specific origin of vodka in Poland is still uncertain, but lore has it that around the eighth century, pagans produced it after one of them left a bottle of honey wine outside in the winter, freezing off the water and concentrating the alcohol. They then mixed the concentrate with medicinal herbs, and it became a healing body rub rather than a drink. After 966, when Poles accepted Christianity, priests began drinking the rough spirit and praised its medicinal powers.

    By the end of the 16th century, there were over 72 herbal vodkas in Poland, plus other non-herb varieties (like poison from adders for a vodka called Zmijovka, ‘adder vodka.’) One of my favorites among modern-day herbal vodkas is Żubrówka (“zoo-broof-ka”), which is distilled from rye. Żubr means bison in Polish, which refers to its unique flavoring—bison grass.

    Inside each bottle of Żubrówka, you will see a blade of grass, which we Poles call bison grass, that gives the spirit a yellowish-green color. This is a type of sweetgrass—hierochlöe odorata—a sweet smelling herb with a distinctive flavor. Some people describe the taste of Żubrówka as reminiscent of vanilla, almonds, and coconut. I would describe it as smoothly herbal with a hint of sweetness.

    Sweetgrass is a sun-loving perennial that is found in northern Europe and North America, growing in rich, moist soil everywhere from Alaska to northeastern Poland. Human use of sweetgrass goes back at least 10,000 years and it is considered to have shamanistic powers, particularly by Native Americans of the Great Plains. They consider sweetgrass sacred as it was believed to be the first plant to cover Mother Earth. During peace and purification ceremonies, braids of the dried grass are lit like incense. The sweet smoke keeps evil spirits away, extends endurance during fasts, and carries prayers to the Creator. Having mildly psychotropic qualities, consuming it may also help one achieve a meditative state. Bison grass contains coumarin, which imparts a vanilla-like flavor and is a natural anti-coagulant, meaning that it thins the blood and improves circulation.

    The bison grass used in Żubrówka grows in only one place in Poland, the Białowieża (Biao-wo-veh-zuh) Primeval Forest in the northeast (the dark area on the map). This pristine area, straddling the border of Poland and Belarus, is all that is left of an immense forest that once spread across the entire European Plain. Except for brief periods during World Wars I and II, when attempts were made to exploit its riches, what remains has been left virtually undeveloped by humans for over ten thousand years, which is why it is so biologically diverse, comparable to the Amazon basin. The Białowieża is home to an amazing 5,500 types of fungi and 25,000 species of fauna.

    For centuries Białowieża, meaning ‘white tower,’ was a favorite hunting ground of Polish kings and Russian tsars. It is the last place where European bison still roam free. These giant prehistoric-looking animals (indeed, fossil records date them back around 230 million years) are the largest mammals in Europe—bulls can stand well over 6 feet, be longer than 9 feet, and weigh close to a ton.

    The environmentally aware Polish king Sigismund the Old, Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, declared Białowieża a hunting preserve in 1541. The king freed all the peasants and made them into guardians of the bison. These magnificent creatures fared less well, however, after partitioning of Poland in 1831 by the invading Russians and Austrians. The tsars removed the protections after the peasants took part in an uprising against Russia.

    The tsars, of course, loved to hunt bison, so they built an elaborate lodge in Białowieża. (The last big hunt took place in 1912.) Because some bison had been sent as gifts to other reigning European monarchs, their descendants survived in zoos. This was a lucky turn of events because these giant animals were almost completely wiped out during World War II, when the German army seized the area and started to shoot the bison. Since then, however, they have miraculously recovered in numbers.

    I first visited Białowieża when I was a teenager. My father, my little sister, my father’s friend and his son, and I, all crowded into my father’s car to drive north for a welcome vacation from our city life in Warszawa (Warsaw). Cars were a rarity at that time, so we were fortunate to have this opportunity. I can still remember how amazed I was when I saw the bison for the first time— their giant, powerful bodies pushing hard against the wooden fence that enclosed them. Many years later I briefly visited again because my brother, a zoologist, was studying the bison to learn how to better preserve them.

    Today, the bison thrive. And they will walk for miles in search of bison grass, which is their favorite treat, perhaps an aphrodisiac, and a necessary nutrient for their health. The bison aren’t the only ones who cherish it. The grass is so precious that local families that harvest it for the vodka distilleries consider the glades where it grows family secrets. A good crop is a big boost to their incomes. The carefully cut blades, precisely eight inches long, are bundled and hauled to a factory in Zielona Góra, near the German border. The smell of the grass is the first indication you are near, such is the plant’s potency.

    Although Żubrówka dates back to the eighth century, distribution didn’t begin until the 17th century, by the Baczewski distillery based in Lwów. Later, many distilleries began distributing this vodka, the exclusive rights eventually winding up with the French company Pernod Richard. In 2003, Poland regained exclusive rights to produce Żubrówka.

    The decision to designate the production of certain drinks and foods as exclusive to certain areas is a worldwide trend now. Żubrówka vodka is to Poland what grappa is to Italy, pisco to Argentina, tequila to Mexico, and feta to Greece. There is a cultural, and culinary, significance to recognizing these products as special, pure, and made in their province of origin. Today, Żubrówka is drunk throughout Poland, especially in the cities, as an aperitif and with meals. It is especially tasty with a plate of creamed herring or with a hearty meal of traditional bigos (cabbage and beef stew).

    While I cannot guarantee that Żubrówka will improve your blood or keep evil spirits away, one thing is certain: you will taste something completely new. And you may become an aficionado, just like the bison.

    Elina O’Lague opened Warszawa in 1973 next to the famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. The restaurant was the only one of its kind in the Bay Area at the time and an immediate success. In 1979 Elina relocated Warszawa to Santa Monica. In 2000 the New York Times picked her restaurant as one of the top six in Santa Monica.


  1. January 31st, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    So vodka started as medicine?

    Nowadays it’s more of a sickness for the liver 😀

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