The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

dry your eyesPosted on 31st January, 2008.

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All my life it seems I have been pursued by visions of vodka drinkers. I am speaking of Polish vodka in particular. There have been vodka drinkers in my family, lined up alongside the legendary whisky drinkers. The Polacks and the Paddies side by side, drowning their sorrows in some down at heel bar in the back alley of the West Midlands. Of course, we now drink wine, as all good Europeans must. From Belarus to Bilston. Even in Poland…

I admit that I recently went to a wine bar here in Warsaw. Somewhere near Rondo Babka, considered by many inhabitants to be one of the worst traffic islands in the city, we searched for this particular wine bar. It was not so easy to find in the twilight, set back a little way from a deserted road in an area where the old and new jostle for position. Behind us, on the far side of the traffic circle, you cannot fail to see a modern shopping mall, a huge neon monolith which would not disgrace the centre of Birmingham or Manchester. (Inside, they are piping ‘Eleanor Rigby’ through the speakers, shoppers ironically mouthing the words ‘All the lonely people/Where do they all come from?’) On another side, beyond the towering 24 Hour McDrive sign, a vast cemetery, whose consumers are quieter by far. Spreading to the north and west, there is expanse of mostly abandoned manufacturing complexes cut through with a railway track and sidings. This is also near to the former site of an anarchist squat, Skład Artystyczny, found amidst the ruined buildings of forgotten five year plans; where we once waited in vain for a punk band from Germany to play some very loud music. Well, they did eventually turn up, several hours later than anticipated and missing a drum kit – it reminded me of the good old days on the road with The Prefects – but by then we had moved on to another party in Praga, on the other side of the river.

Tonight we convene in a large warehouse, full of wine crates alongside a small area for serving food and drink, with just a few tables, a bar counter and several stools. Pretty good food too, if the goulash was anything to go by. You walk around, choose a bottle or two of wine from the hundreds on display and it’s brought to your table and uncorked or decanted. It’s not cheap, but the wine is indeed good. Many people wander in, buy some bottles and go home. Our host, our wine concierge, is a Canadian by birth, married to a Pole. He appears to be always on hand to advise a customer, with genuine bonhomie, uncorked and oxygenated. I wonder if he is a secret vodka drinker, or if this might irrevocably corrupt his palate.

Telephone numbers and the name of wines escape my memory, so I cannot tell you what we drank this night.  I shall not go into the circumstances that brought me here, to this Aladdin’s Cave of Winery. Suffice to say it revolved around the search for alcohol and good company – or perhaps bad company, as we drinkers so often prefer to choose. Sitting amongst the wine cognoscenti in Warsaw might seem, to some, in poor taste – but dear reader, do not despair! We intend to search high and low in the Great Polish Nation to deconstruct the joys and sorrows of the dedicated vodka drinker.

AlcoholometerPosted on 11th January, 2008.

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Note from Iwona:

If one – just by accident – is taken as a Quality Inspector, his/her liver is in highest possible danger. Mr Kowalski (= Mr Pole), after being fired from his job in a laboratory, decided to have ‘a one’ (one vodka shot that is never one). He had an Alcoholmeter with him so he was mistaken for an Inspector and thus kindly offered meal, drink and money. Especially drink. First done by accident, the action was then repeated many times.

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Until Mr Kowalski was arrested. Eventually he was found innocent but he had to pay taxes out of all bribes (defined as donations).

Everybody here seems nervous. All waiters, cooks, restaurant’s managers. And even Mr Kowalski who prefers to drink than to tell his wife the truth about losing his job. She is nervous too – and prefers his husband drunk than jobless.

And you may see what happens to a man who must drink as a part of his duties.

Crooks and Philanthropists or Mobs and Philanthropists (dir. Jerzy Hoffman, Edward Skórzewski, 1963), part Alcoholometer

At the airportPosted on 9th January, 2008.

The plane to Poland is delayed by an hour and a half. Plenty of time to join the festive crowds indulging in a little post-Christmas airport shopping, drinking egg-nogs or gingerbread latte. Security check my bag.

Where are you going, nice little break, Sir?
To Szczecin.
Szczecin, I see, Sir. Where’s that? Is it colder than here?

They want to know a lot of details about my travel arrangements. Maybe it’s because I don’t look the skiing type and I’m not wearing a sombrero or Hawaiian shorts, which a disturbing number of people are, and I don’t have on a football team shirt. And, of course, I speak an unrecognisable form of non-estuary English.

Szczecin, do you have business there, Sir?
Yes, I have an important meeting with a large bottle of vodka in the world famous Starka brewery.

Would that be the same as in Starka and Hutch, Sir?
Starka, I say knowledgably, that most noble and the most mysterious of all Polish vodkas.

The plane is delayed by two hours. When we finally land with a bump or three in snow-bound Szczecin after midnight, the passengers applaud loudly. Two Englishmen in front of us wave their arms in the air. They have spent most of the journey drinking and swopping anecdotes about footballers from the 1970’s, Rodney Marsh and George Best in particular.

- They liked their cars fast and women to match.
- George never drank pints, did he?
- He drank vodka and lemonade.
- Well, it doesn’t smell and there’s no real taste, is there?
- He was a one, eh?
- Brilliant ball players, never see their like again…

The wife of one says to him, You’ve been drinking since 6’o’clock. How much have you spent? £70?

We’re enjoying ourselves, love, he replies quite sweetly, silver hair and ruddy complexion aglow.

They continue to drink whisky, then gin and tonic, served from a plastic packet. They have vodka available too, but it looks like it should be attached to an IV drip. The woman asks for her husband’s credit card and immediately buys a MPEG player from the gift shop on board.

Only £49.98, she says with some satisfaction.
Are you really going to buy that? asks the man.
Enjoy your drinks, boys, she says, a gentle reproof.

a short guide…Posted on 7th January, 2008.

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Note from Iwona:

I have just discovered that I am probably allergic to alcohol. Deeply ambivalent conclusion taking into account the fact that I like it. Taste? Genes? Custom? Re-vision? Many reasons, I guess.

I have some photos of my father at an airplane during his army service (regular one, not “country in need” so called). Nevertheless I am not sure if he really flied it as most of his army photos are in navy uniform. It gave a pretext to him and his friends/family to sing a song: “Let’s drink some wine, we sailors” and to drink vodka with it. (Not surprisingly it was not wine being drunk).

As one of our famous directors said: there is only the gloom in Poland as Poles drink liquid made of bulbs grown underground (potatoes) when other, more lucky nations (mostly Italians, in the perspective of the famous man) have their drink prepared in full sun.

In full sun tragedy may happen, a real crime – Oedipus and Medea were acting in full sun. Our landscape is rather swampy – someone may be lost, a knife may be used, but it is rather Pagliacci than Makbeth. It is not THE fate – just fatal swamp.

This makes a real problem for our touristic agencies: how to sell the country, not selling only vodka. In ad-folders the reality of vodka-sellers and vodka-reality is hyper-real. You never know if it is Douglas Sirk’s melodrama (they don’t mention any tears made out of alcohol) or the look you get after drinking (one drinks “red” cherry vodka – one gets reddish). A new version of “Red Rooster” is born – out of white-red glass (see above).

England, one dark winter nightPosted on 5th January, 2008.

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We’re sitting in a vodka bar in Walsall, one of many that have sprung up in every town and city centre. That’s Walsall, England, not Warsaw, Poland, though the way I pronounce it a lot of people may easily confuse the two. It’s my Black Country accent. A sensitive ear from the south of England might mistake it for somewhere north of the border, those syllables forged in West Bromwich confused with those of West Kilbride.

In my old Hammond’s World Atlas of 1961, Walsall is a town 27 entries distance from Warsaw – conceptually and alphabetically separated by places such as Wangaratta, Australia, and Warri, Nigeria. It’s Tuesday in Walsall, it’s raining and miserable outside – snow is a forgotten phenomena in these parts and if it does snow then the country will come to an entire standstill for a minimum of 48 hours. But don’t worry about the weather, there’s live music in the vodka bar to cheer us all up. The promoter rang me up, encouraging me to come along, so three of us did. There’s maybe thirteen other people in the bar, including the staff and the band, which turns out to be one person with his guitar, microphone and small crackly PA. The band of one resolutely play on regardless, doing covers. An over-enthusiastic bartender (an Asian lad who reminds me of my dear friend Peter Singh in his youthful exuberance) does the rounds with a tray of shot glasses and demonstration tasters.

New flavours! Special promotion! Two shots for the price of one! he offers.

He means half-price, says Martin. Or the stuff they can’t get rid of. Or maybe just half-vodka?

Two shots for the price of one! he repeats hopefully. A bargain! Down them in one! he encourages. This is possibly because of the vile taste of these concoctions and not a cultural custom. His hair is gelled in impossible configurations which recall crystalline formations last seen under a microscope. He seems unable to speak without exclamation marks!

The vodka flavours on offer tonight might be described as variations on chewing gum, mixed with caramel or mint. They are sweet and sickly and – in the absence of any other taste – they certainly taste diluted.

So this is supposed to be a vodka bar? This is the question on the lips of the young Pole who has accompanied us. She isn’t much of a drinker and is clearly not impressed. She wears a perplexed look on her face for most of the evening. Taking a Pole to a vodka bar in Walsall never seemed a good idea. She said she would rather visit a Welsh castle or a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye. She looks out the window at the rain and the rubbish trickling along in the gutters.

I am told it helps if you get pissed in England a lot, she says to no-one in particular. She sighs and turns her attention to the music instead.

The one man band does songs by Oasis, The Beatles, Bob Marley. Then he gets a pint glass thrown at him, still full of lager. One of his friends and the promoter chase the glass thrower out into the street. The singer is disheartened and says he will only do one more song. I’m only getting paid in beer, he mutters, but I think he means lager.  He stares disconsolately at the array of flavoured vodkas behind the bar, carefully lit. He is performing in a dark corner to the side of the bar, where only five of the audience can actually see him. He offers to do requests but there are no requests.

This dark, dark night it seems to rain endlessly.

Short Vodka Stories No: 1
Walsall Council trading standards officers are warning people across the borough to watch out for counterfeit vodka. Following a Food Standards Agency raid on an illicit distillery in the north of England, council officers caution that bottles of the fake spirits may have found their way to Walsall.

Formal samples of the counterfeit vodka show methanol contamination is not an issue, but the percentage levels of alcohol found in each product were inaccurate and not that declared on the genuine products. Trading standards manager John Beavon said: “Walsall Council is committed to ensuring the safety of all our citizens and we would urge residents to watch out for these products. It may be tempting for people to purchase counterfeit vodka, especially if it is cheap, but it is likely to be of poor quality and may be much weaker – or stronger – than the real product.”

Anyone finding vodka they believe to be fake should contact Walsall Council trading standards officers immediately. Food Standards Agency officers have received reports indicating that these products are available on sale in pubs and off licences nationwide. Walsall trading standards officers will be on the lookout for such products during the course of their routine inspections and they will take appropriate enforcement action if they find them.

found on Walsall MBC website, Tuesday, October 25, 2005