The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

Miss Vodka RegretsPosted on 27th April, 2008.

I agree with Paolo Coehlo’s simple travel advice: Frequent bars. It’s where you’ll find city life. Always in a Warsaw bar, many times I have been asked about which parts of Poland I have visited. The truthful answer – Szczecin, Warsaw, Białystok, Sejny and so on – seems to be an unexpected and wholly unsatisfactorily reply. “You have not been to Kraków? Or Zakopane?” Sorry, no, I haven’t. Usually this is followed by a look of disdain or sorrow or just confusion, a sad shake of the head and a look that asks Why? or What is wrong with you?  (Though one person did tell me, rather forcefully, ‘Forget about Warsaw and all the other places! Leave Poland! My advice is go to Prague!’) I finally hit on the perfect answer. “I’m visiting vodka factories…” This seems to make some kind of perfect sense to the questioner. “Ah, rozumien… I understand.” This is where this project started of course.

Fortunately, I have now been to both Kraków and Zakopane and very nice they are too.  But this weekend, in Kraków, there was a small but disturbing march of the ONR – a Polish nationalist political party from the 1930’s, which was recreated in the 1990’s.  Deriving its philosophy from fascist models, they are wearing Brownshirts and use Nazi salutes, and carry a banner that reads Niesiemy Polsce Odrozenie. My Nowe Pokolenie. We bring Poland revival. We, the New Generation.

There is also a very vocal anti-fascist demonstration, and a lot of riot police, all in amidst the tourists taking in the picturesque views of Wawel Castle and taking photographs of the balcony where Pope John Paul II once stood. Photographs of the riot police seemed less popular.

Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest concentration/death camp complex organised by the Nazis in the Second World War, lies some 70 kilometres west of Kraków. This particular weekend is also when the March of the Living occurs, with Jewish teenagers from all over the world coming to Poland on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, to march from Auschwitz to Birkenau. Speilberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’, filmed locally, is the Saturday movie playing on Polish television. The definite book on the subject, for me, is  ‘Auschwitz – The Nazis and the Final Solution’ by Laurence Rees (BBC Books, 2005) and there’s some sobering thoughts on Auschwitz logic in contemporary Middle East politics at spectrezine.org/war/Auschwitz.htm

Meanwhile, we sit in Alchemia, a bar in the Kasimierz district, formerly one of the main cultural centres of Polish Jewry, discussing a new law passed by the country’s ruling conservatives. The anti-communist lustration law, which previously affected only lawmakers, government ministers and judges, was extended recently to include academics, journalists (or anyone who had anything published), managers of state-owned firms, school principals, diplomats and lawyers, potentially affecting nearly three-quarters of a million Poles. The law allows the Institute of National Remembrance, which holds the communist security-service files, to identify collaborators – however that might be defined. Individuals have to submit their declarations to this Institute or risk losing their jobs. They also face a ban if they are considered to be economical with the truth. Lustration, from Latin, means purification through ceremony or sacrifice but the words purge and witch-hunt also come to mind, with uncomfortable resonances from the not-so-distant past in Central and Eastern Europe. The issue of what consists of collaboration is a thorny and diffuse one for many people – in future, might I be considered a collaborator in the war in Iraq if I vote for the Labour Party in the forthcoming local authority elections on May 3rd?

A group of journalists from Gazeta Wyborcza, which is one of Poland’s most influential newspapers – originally created by anti-communist dissidents – has announced they are boycotting the law. Warsaw University also has called for the suspension of the new law. Many critics of the law feel it is a specific attempt to stifle critics of the government and control an independent and free media. Miss Vodka Regrets, we may be culling the intelligensia today… All in all, a very peculiar weekend indeed.

The Taste CommitteePosted on 1st April, 2008.

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Once upon  time, but not that long ago, I took a taxi to the Koneser vodka factory in the old district of Praga. Koneser? Zabrowska? asked the driver.

Yes, tak, Koneser. Proproszę.

Koneser vodka? The driver clearly expressed this as a question, as if I didn’t really want to go there at all. Or perhaps he knew something I didn’t. My request was surely not so peculiar.

He shrugged, seeming a little mystified by my choice of destination. Maybe he was thinking, It’s a nice sunny morning, why go across to Praga when there is the Royal Route to explore? We headed to the east side, in a steady stream of traffic across Most Lazsienkowski, one of the eight bridges over the river Wisła. Downstream I could see one of the water purification towers which squatted in the slow moving water. I had been told they were nicknamed ‘Fat Kasia’. These conical compact green and yellow metal structures look like the abandoned nose cone of a space rocket, formerly used in an episode of Dr. Who, beached there till the end of time.

The taxi swung north along Wal Miedzesznski, a wide dual carriageway which passes the old national football stadium – soon to be redeveloped for the 2012 European Championships.  The broad Wiłsa to one side, the embankment masked by trees and bushes, on the other side we drive past large apartment blocks and open spaces with huge figurative sculptures which commemorate some fallen hero. Why is it that in most cities, the east side is the older, the less developed, the more run down, more earthy or less glamorous and later subject to elaborate regeneration schemes? What is it that makes us gravitate to the west?

Koneser is – or was -  a vodka factory on ul. Ząbkowska, first established here in 1897. It’s a short walk from the main street, Targowa, where the tram lines run, and near to the Carrefour shopping centre and neo-Byzantine Orthodox Cathedral at Place Wilenski. There are several opportunities to get drunk along the way, particularly if this were at night of course – though I notice that the bar with the huge spider outside is open. There used to be a sign near here with a large bat motif, offering GOTHIC DOOM, THRASH DEATH, HEAVY, BLACK. It is has gone, and another new bar has opened.

I meet Dominik and Iwona outside the gates of the factory. We are shown round by Pani Halina – let us call her that. Immediately she announces, I warmly welcome you on behalf of our chief and myself! The chief does not appear at any point during our tour of the site – which occupies about 5 hectares (50,000 square metres). As our bags are checked by security, our guide stresses that it goes without saying that you can’t bring alcohol onto the site as contamination is a big concern. And no smoking anywhere, she says, looking at Dominik. She has met him before and clearly knows his habits. 500 zloti immediate on the spot fine! she admonishes him.

This was, purportedly, the first factory in Warsaw to have electricity. On their website they proudly describe their industrial heritage as follows: ‘Our buildings are classified as the best types of relicts. Cast iron roses, which survived, make the buildings look more attractive. Very important element, which can be called a work of art, is the chimney.’ The blocks of flats on the edge of the site were built by the factory owners to house their workers. They remind me of old Glasgow tenements. Most of these have been sold off and turned into private apartments. Other parts of the site have been leased to other organisations or businesses. There is, for example, a photo-gallery in one of the buildings.

Pani Halina told us some curious stories about this place. After the Second World War, with most of the city lying in ruin, workers were paid only with vodka, which they then sold on to neighbours and friends or used as barter for goods. Further back, in the winter of 1914, when the Imperial Russian army occupied the city, the military governor ordered a prohibition on alcohol. He demanded that all liquids at this factory ‘be disposed of” and a deadline for this action to take place was announced. When the fateful day arrived, crates of vodka were carried out into the street to be poured down the drains, a public display of the ruthless enactment of the Tsarist edict. The gutters soon overflowed with the vital spirit. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, no-one knows how many, gathered in the cold air with all manner of containers, buckets and receptacles to scoop up the vodka as it was decanted. It became a kind of crazy festival of waste and reclamation. The factory workers, obeying the dictum of the occupying army to dispose of the alcohol, pouring it away for hour upon hour. Then people rushing around in a frenzy to gather it up in a mad act of either communal desperation or uninhibited liberation. Who knows how many hundreds of thousands of litres turned to a frozen sludge that bitter day or how many were recouped, some precious nourishment for hard times to come?

The factory produced pure vodkas: Metropolis, Warszawska, Legenda, Zagłoba, Planet, Koneser, Bycza, Targowa, Winiak Klubowy, Oleńka, Kniejówka and spirits. They produced two types: potato spirits and corn spirits, but mostly making products based on corn spirits. Only Metropolis vodka is made of both kinds of spirits. She explained to us, the European Union prefers using corn spirits in production process, so this why we use them too.  She tells us how potato spirits are delicate and have a slightly sweet taste and how corn spirits are spicier.

The factory had its own water supply of high quality demineralised Oligocene water pumped up from a from a well 270 metres underground. It also had its own railway station until the 1960’s, where the raw ingredients of alcohol – spiritus – arrived, shipped here from all over the country. It first arrived at a weighing station, as did the later road transports, where each container was meticulously checked to ensure that the cargo that arrived was the same weight that was shipped. There were, it seems, many bands of spiritus thieves roaming the countryside. The shipments were also tested for taste.

This led us into a long conversation about one of the more intriguing jobs in the vodka factory.  If there is any doubt about the quality of the vodka, the Taste Committee is convened. This may be the most important job in the factory.  It isn’t easy to be selected for this role. The staff are subjected to a rigorous vetting process. Statistically, it may be easier to be selected for the Polish version of Big Brother or Pop Idol. Firstly, you cannot be a smoker. Secondly, you can’t use perfumes of any kind. Thirdly, you have to be healthy, you cannot have a cold – “no sniffing of the nose” as she put it. Fourthly, you have to prove that you are capable of important task that has been entrusted to you; you have to be able to distinguish between subtly different tastes and the degrees of taste.

The taste test is described to us by Bożena, the Head of the Laboratory. Her laboratory is housed in the oldest building, the original site of the rectification process from one hundred years ago. Potential members of the Taste Committee are tested for their ability to recognise different tastes -  sour, sweet, bitter, salt, or just plain water. Several samples for testing are given to the individuals with a specific flavour at different levels of dilution. In the laboratory they are looking for the precise point at which the candidates will stop distinguishing the taste. Some specific flavours are introduced. Can an individual distinguish an orange taste or a nutty taste? Testing is undertaken between 11am and 1pm. The individual cannot have anything to drink for several hours before the test. Should you pass through the initial maze of tests and join the elite corps of the Taste Committee, then you and your companions, no more than three or four at any one time, may be called upon at any time to pass judgement on a particular batch of spirits. At the height of production, it was possible for the Taste Committee to meet every single day. Their verdict must always be unanimous. Anything less than this means that the vodka is rejected. There are, of course, also a range of chemical checks on the spiritus being received and the level of alcohol in the vodka in production, ensuring no contaminants have crept into the process.

Ninety five per cent of production here was pure vodka, though Konesar also produced some flavoured vodka – cranberry, honey, forest fruit. The ‘small’ production line – miniatwka – could produce 15,000 bottles a day, the ‘medium’ line 80,000 half litre bottles a day. All is quiet this particular afternoon. There appeared to be no production. We were told that 103 people worked here, with 50 dedicated to the production lines. We saw less than a dozen people while walking round. We will soon discover why. The following week an announcement appears in the press. The factory has been sold to a property developer, who will convert the buildings into luxury apartments. This industrial heritage will soon be devoured and disappear.