No Animals Harmed in the Production of Polish Bisongrass Vodka

As mezcal famously has its worm, this Polish vodka gets its specific yellowish tint from a straw of grass, the same that feeds bison in Eastern Poland.

European bison in forest
European bison in forest. Photo: Olga Itina / stock.adobe.com

You have to be sober for this one: try to pronounce żubrówka (zhoo-BROOV-kha), the name of a popular flavored vodka from Poland. What’s so special about it (besides the pronunciation?) Everything, except maybe the Polish-style vodka base. (Which, to be fair, is quite exceptional itself.)

Żubrówka’s name comes from żubr – the Polish name for the local bison that were famously nearly extinct but then reintroduced and now live wild in the region. Obviously, bison have nothing to do with the actual production of this vodka, but they do have one thing in common – the bison grass, an aromatic herb that can be harvested or foraged locally.

Bisongrass Vodka apple pie

Bottle of Zubrovaka (Bison Grass) vodka
Bottle of Zubrovaka (Bison Grass) vodka. Photo: monticellllo / stock.adobe.com

This type of bison grass is common in Europe and North America, and its high coumarin content contributes to its unique aroma. As such, it is used as a smudge in folk medicine. However, the people of Eastern Poland found yet another use for it: aromatizing vodka. The final product is quite unique – as most vodkas in Poland are clear spirits, differing only in base (wheat, rye, or potato), this is something more like a Polish gin, as both kinds of liquor are aromatized with herbs.

Bison grass vodka has a greenish tint, with one straw of bison grass left inside. It is sweetish and herbal on the palate and goes well as a sipping vodka. One trendy cocktail (or at least it used to be) made with it is called szarlotka (apple pie) – one unit of żubrówka topped up with apple juice.
The effect is, in fact, similar to polish apple pie, unless, of course, you go with the mint-flavored apple juice, which is also a frequent pairing. As apples are another Polish specialty, you could ostensibly call szarlotka the Polish mixed drink. Other concoctions include ginger ale, blackcurrant juice, mate, and even vanilla ice cream.

Tinted Żubrówka made clear

However, we feel obliged to mention that there’s one caveat: not all bottles branded Żubrówka are actually bison grass vodkas. Under state socialism in Poland, spirit distilleries were state-held and usually specialized in one type of liquor. Then in the 1990s, the tables turned, and Polmos (Polish Spirit Monopoly) factories were privatized, sometimes falling into international corporations.

A large part of the deal was obviously a distillery itself, but never underestimate the power of a brand, especially one rooted in the consciousness for decades. Żubrówka, packeted with Polmos Białystok (a city in the east of Poland), is traded on the Warsaw Stock Exchange.

To maximize their profit, Żubrówka, while still used as a household word for bisongrass vodka, is a brand name of a range of vodkas, including the clear one. Look for the actual grass in the bottle when looking for the real thing.

Oh, one last thing, just in time for your żubrówka-fuelled trivia night: the coumarin in bisongrass made the liquor forbidden in the US until 2010, as the ingredient was prohibited as a direct addition to the food. And as a bonus, Żubrówka is also a… country name in Wes Anderson’s 2014 “The Grand Budapest Hotel” movie. Apparently, the director assumed that this exotic bisongrass booze could be eponymous to its region. And, to be fair, there’s some truth in that assumption.
Also check European Bison – Return From the Other Side

Przemysław Bociąga

is a Polish journalist and essayist based in Warsaw. An anthropologist and art historian by education, he specializes in combining cultural phenomena with compelling narrative. He has authored and co-authored several books covering lifestyle and history. The most recent of them is “Impeccable. The biography of masculine image”. He has contributed to many leading magazines, both in print and online, and teaches cultural anthropology to college students.

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