The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

statistics, damned statisticsPosted on 26th August, 2008.

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Where is Poland? asks Iwona, in response to reading an article at Forbes.com about European alcohol consumption. Perhaps all the heavy drinkers have moved abroad, suggested Brendan. Though it is unlikely they have moved to Croatia, Slovenia and Estonia – who occupy the top three places. The UK, surprisingly, only charted at number 15. Read the article and view results here.

Conversation in a Krakow barPosted on 24th August, 2008.

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He told me it was supposed to be a great trip but it clearly didn’t turn out as he planned.

He said: Don’t ever mention the word ‘trip’ to me. We drove down all the way here from Wolverhampton, 24 hours overnight. A lot of interesting places caught my eye on the way but we didn’t stop. I didn’t get much sleep in the van and we got here by lunch time Friday. We’d got an apartment in the centre of town. Krakow looked all right to me. We had a walk round and found a pizza place. They didn’t seem to want to serve us so we found another one where it was sort of Middle-Eastern themed. The barmaids were dressed as belly dancers and they had vodka and apple flavoured hookah pipes. In the town square there were some naked English guys on a stag night. I didn’t want to look too closely. They soon got arrested. There’s a lot of English here, getting drunk on the cheap beer and vodka. So were we.

Yes, I understand, I said, it’s to be expected. Don’t mention piołunówka to me. It’s a killer.

Have you noticed, he said, how there’s a lot of bars in basements here? In this particular one, I think the barmaids were in hot pants. I’d lost my friends by this point. No, I don’t know how I ended up there. Anyway, I tripped up the stairs on the way out and impaled myself somehow right under my chin. Fortunately, there was an ambulance in the square dealing with more drunk tourists in football shirts. Some paramedics patched me up and put a big plaster around my head. I was covered in blood. I was bleeding like a stuck pig. It’s looks pretty bad doesn’t it? I probably look like that medieval trumpeter up in the church tower, that one who got shot through the neck with an arrow by the Tatar hordes. Or maybe the Scorpio killer in the first Dirty Harry movie? What do you think? A policeman kept asking me if I knew where I was going, very polite, not at all like a Clint Eastwood cop. I did know where I was going. It was the only thing I could remember, where we were staying. I staggered back there. My new clothes are ruined. The blood stains will never come out. Sunday was a blur. I need to drink less. If I come to Krakow again, I would refrain from alcohol.

He paused, looked me in the eye, then said: I could be lying…

I had to agree with him – he did look like a stuck pig. (I have worked in a hospital and my Mother was a nurse and I never actually seen a stuck pig, but this is how I imagine it to be.)

We talked about how the English love to drink in excess. They are binge drinkers par excellence. And of course, the government wants to intervene – with new surveys suggesting that the UK now has one of the highest rates of youth drunkenness across Europe, with 24% of 15-year-olds saying they have been drunk 10 times or more in the past year. Per-capita consumption of alcohol in the UK has doubled since the late 1950s, while in other European countries it has halved. (A non-British friend thinks this is because other countries don’t bother to actually spend time and energy on surveys – she believes that the British, along with Americans, are obsessed with surveying themselves.) Add to this health department figures which tell us that around 70% of attendances at Accident and Emergency departments between midnight and 5 am on weekends are alcohol-related. The Reverend Peter Swales from the British National Temperance League compares it with “the dark Victorian times where you could get drunk for a penny and dead for tuppence.” Or before… in the mid-18th century, thanks to an influx of cheap gin, London had 17,000 ‘gin-houses’ in the 1750’s. During the Napoleonic Wars, British soldiers were issued half a pint of rum or two pints of wine a day as basic rations. The Duke of Wellington called his troops “the scum of the earth… men who have enlisted for drink.” Cultural commentator Jeremy Clarkson is against any kind of state meddling. In one of his columns for the Sunday Times he wrote: “The BBC says that if you drink too much your brain stem will break and you will die. The British government tells us that if a man drinks more than two small glasses of white wine a day he will catch chlamydia from the barmaid in the pub garden after closing time. Rubbish. If a man drinks more than two small glasses of white wine every day it’s the barman he needs to worry about.” His concern was not “the people who drink for fun, but the people who drink to live.”

With the increasing cost of wheat and barley products, we can expect to see an increase in the basic price of food and drink. Consumers appear to be fighting back. The Sunday Times also reports that Italians are threatening a pasta protest, the French government fearing baguette rage, while Mexicans take to the streets over the price of tortillas. We can surely expect an outbreak of alcohol anger in the UK. And more English tourists on a drink related weekend in cheap and cheerful Krakow. Then a Polish Clint Eastwood will suggest a zero tolerance clampdown. Na zdrovie!

PurityPosted on 20th August, 2008.

There are what we might call pure vodkas, and there are others. The conflict is between purity and character. Vodka is filtered through charcoal to remove impurities and, of course, the purity increases with the number of times it is filtered. This rectification process removes those unwanted byproducts – solvents, fusil oil, methanol. They say that Żołądkowa Gorzka was ‘discovered’ by accident, that it was a sublime combination of leftover dregs in the bottom of a distillation unit with a distinct aromatic aura that drew some unknown worker to taste and think, ‘Hey, this has some possibilities…’ It was originally classed as a ‘bitter vodka digestive’ – or a flavoured vodka – made from a combination of herbal, spice and dried fruit nalewki (an infusion of herbs or plants steeped in alcohol).

Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka was first concocted in the early 1950‘s. It is possibly my favourite vodka. It’s literal translation is ‘stomach vodka’ – as it believed to be a remedy for indigestion problems after a lavish meal. It’s colour comes from an addition of caramel to the mix. There are no artificial flavours or aromas. Today, it has a slightly more sweet flavour (though you can get a special edition of the original recipe).

I have had occasion to visit Lourdes, where I was first conceived, and to go to Monserrat to kiss the feet of the Black Madonna. I have climbed with pilgrims to the top of Crough Patrick (but not barefoot) and often lit candles in memory for lost ones at the shrine of Jeanne D’Arc, but this is a different kind of homage.

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We take the long straight road from the railway station to the Polmos factory, past low walls, no high rise buildings, and a smattering of trees. Vodka has been produced here since 1906, when Lublin was part of a Kingdom of Poland under the sovereignty of the Russian Tsar.

We are met by Ireneusz Cymbala, a manager in charge of export, who takes us on a tour of the factory, which is clearly busy. Business is booming. This single factory, which has 500 employees, produced 3 million litres of vodka over the last 12 months. The production lines are running 24/7 and a new product – Czysta de Luxe Żołądkowa Gorzka, a clear vodka with six-phase distillation process and with the use of natural charcoal filters -  is selling one million a month. In terms of production, the factory is now third in the country. He tells us that Wódka źoładkwa gorska is now available in Asda. (I am particularly pleased to hear this and intend to email all my friends at the first opportunity.)

This factory, along with all the others in Poland, was nationalised in 1948 by the Communists. One big company with 25 factories, and all decisions – good or bad – made centrally in Warsaw. The Lublin factory then concentrated on spirits made from molasses. After the fall of communism, the factories became independent and it was at this time that Ireneusz worked on the shop floor for 10 years – the old assembly lines then produced 6000 bottles an hours, whereas the new ones can produce 18000 bottles an hour. If we could have done this then, he said, we would have been very happy workers. There are six bottling lines in operation, including two of the old ones.

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Business was chaotic back then – trademarks were not established, so different factories could produce their own version of wódka źoładkowa gorska, and distributors could take a shipment from one producer, default on payment, and get a shipment of the same product (more or less) from another factory. It wasn’t until 1999 that Polmos Lublin was able to purchase the ‘brand rights’ to źoładkowa gorska. The factory itself was only privatised in 2001 – a number of the distilleries are still state-owned – and in 2002 they purchased the sole rights to the name.

There are two other versions of Żołądkowa Gorzka, one made with honey, and one with mint. I confess I am not fond of the latter. I say it tastes like mouthwash. Ah, we recommend you try it with a lot of ice and apple juice, he says, this make it a very refreshing drink. I will give it a try, but not today. Tonight, I will stay with tradition. With purity of thought, you might say, though I am not sure Saint Augustine would approve.

Conversation in Warsaw Bar: 4Posted on 14th August, 2008.

We drank wódka źoładkowa gorska mixed with Sprite and ice. She said, You know, I can’t ski now without a drink. I had a bad skiing accident and I was a little nervous after this but a small shot of Krupnik and then I am able to ski really well. Not while skiing you understand, but in between the stopping. She told me she liked to go skiing in the Czech Republic, on the far side of the Tatras, where she said the cavalier attitude of the coach drivers in these mountains made her more than a little nervous. She recommended a summer trip to ‘the land of a thousand lakes’ in the north eastern region. She told me of her sailing expedition on the Mazurian lakes, giving me the impression that the very waters of these lakes were in the process of fermentation. She said, This is the recipe for a successful sailing trip: in the morning, it was banana liquor with cornflakes. If it was cold it would be Amaretto in tea, and coffee with advocaat. In the afternoon, it was vodka all round.

In Poland I believe it is illegal to ride a bicycle while under the influence of alcohol.  I am not clear how the law stands with regard to piloting a boat. I make a mental note to explore these intoxicated waterways.

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Ludwig’s Nalewki RecipePosted on 3rd August, 2008.

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Go to the woods and pick one hundred flowers of lilac. Add eight or nine lemons and boil in four litres of water. Let the mixture settle for 48 hours, then squeeze it through a sieve. Add three and a half litres of sugar, 20 decagrammes of lemon acid, spiritus and leave for 10 days. The mix should be 40% spiritus and 60% essence. For stronger you put more, but I prefer this perfect mix.

When I was younger, my Mother made a syrup which could be used for a sore throat, but if you added alcohol it made a very fine drink. It was made from the upper branches of a fir tree, the Christmas tree.

The trees are not now in blossom, but we collect some leaves…

More on nalewki here…