Bruce Willis Helped Poles in Their Claim to Have Invented Vodka

The decades-long debate between Poland and Russia over who invented vodka started to turn in Poland's favor when an A-list Hollywood star stepped in to help the old myths to die hard.

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Bruce Willis once invested in Polish vodka
Photo: Tommaso Boddi / WireImage / Getty Images

The ancient Romans would say, “In vino veritas,” which means the truth lies in wine. However, that adage would be more accurate to Poles if “wine” were switched with “vodka.” The truth about the origins of vodka varies, depending on who you ask. Even Bruce Willis waded into the age-old discussion about the creation of this clear spirit, putting his thumb on Poland’s side.

Hollywood helping Polish vodka

Indeed, the debate has been raging for ages with no definitive conclusion in sight. The two leading players are Poland and Russia, with other countries playing bit parts. Such as Lithuania, which claims to have invented a barrel-aged vodka called Starka. In the United States, vodka – part of the new, modern world – became more widely known in the 1950s through the brand Smirnoff, which is associated with Russia – a country that invoked mixed feelings in the American soul. Because of this introduction via Smirnoff, Western markets generally began to associate vodka with Russia.

Poland began to gain ground in this battle in the 1990s with a mix of marketing tools. This included product placement in movies, such as the Bond franchise, and the slogan “There’s no V in Wodka,” popularized to underline the Polish name genesis. What it lacked was an ambassador.

And then came Bruce Willis to save the world, as he always does in his movies. In 2009 famous Hollywood actor, known in the business world for his restaurant brand Planet Hollywood, was approached by Krzysztof Tryliński, the entrepreneur behind the vodka brand Sobieski. 

Bruce Willis as King Sobieski

As it was later said, from among the actors selected for the role of brand ambassador, Willis was the most fitting. The history of the Polish King Jan III Sobieski, who stopped the Turkish invasion of Europe in 1683 during the Battle of Vienna, seemed to Willis all too familiar. “[Willis] explained to me that he saved the world 12 times in his films. And our king did it once and for real,” explained Tryliński to the press.

The actor not only decided to be a part of the promotion, but he also invested in the company and decided to become a member of the board of directors. The company needed the money to fight the perspective of a hostile takeover on the stock exchange. As with the case of Planet Hollywood, the business was not as good as Willis expected, and a few years later, the actor settled in the court for a buyout of his shares.

However, the financial issues had nothing to do with the success of the campaign, as the sale of Polish vodkas, especially in the US, grew more than tenfold during their cooperation. And one business hangover is not going to change that.

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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