The Vodka Project - in search of the spirit

On the way there and on the way backPosted on 27th July, 2010.

Warning: the word ‘traditional’ may be overused in this post.

On a long road trip it is necessary to stop off at some roadside tavern. This is not Route 66 and we aren’t looking for a Tex-Mex place on the outskirts of Albuquerque. It’s not some god-forsaken truck stop in the middle of the Nevada desert which sells t-shirts and gives you food-poisoning. It’s dusty and hot but not that kind of landscape. We’ve taken a slight detour, west of Białystok, off the 671 to Kiermusy, where we find an old Polish Manor House called Dworek nad łąkami/Manor House in the Meadows. It’s a convincing recreation that Disney Imagineers would love to deconstruct and reconstruct. There are other traditional buildings remade here – Karczma Rzym/Rome Inn, Czworaki Dworskie/Manor Court, and Jantarowy Kasztel/Jantarowy chateau. Here visitors may spend a night in the Royal Chamber, Russian Room or Jewish Suite and ‘find relaxation in the Rasputin’s Steam Bath’. Whatever your choice, the web site promises that ‘fatigued guests can find a bit of relax with music near the fireplace in the living room’.

From the bright afternoon sun, we pass through the doors of Rome Inn into a dark cavernous interior and what looks like an old dusty wooden feasting hall. (I don’t think Disney would do the dust). We find a table by a small window and near to a huge bison head mounted on the wall. We are near to the home of Żubrówka vodka after all. The bison is wearing a crown. Underneath it are various small wooden sculptures, of gnomes, kings and warrior chieftains – a kind of shrine to arcadia – and dozens upon dozens burnt down candles, evidence of merriment the night before. The candles are real – I checked.

We are in the land formerly popular with Lithuanian princes, Polish kings and Russian tsars. They enjoyed the hunting and probably the Podlasie cuisine. This hostelry is known for this, meats prepared according to old recipes, bread freshly baked in the oven and locally made Kiermusy liquors, a kind of nalewka.

We start with the traditional non-alcoholic drink Podpiwek, a dark drink made from flour and yeast, with a caramel colour and sweet aroma. It’s a little sour tasting at first. She tells me, This is more in the Russian tradition and in the Ukraine it’s called ‘kvass’. Here the borders these things get mixed up. The name can be translated into English as ‘under-beer’. There is no written menu here. The waiter offers chicken breasts in a sauce with kasza gryczana, a plate of cold meats with slices of fat, with a delicious homemade thick tomato soup to start with. As well as the traditional homemade vodka.

After the meal, I ask where the traditional bathroom is. The waiter says, You go past the bar and into the wardrobe. And indeed you do. Like Narnia, you stoop through the double wardrobe doors and find a fragrant (stuffed with lavender wreathes) pastoral bathroom.

If you were to wish to stay – and many do – there is accommodation on site, including a faux-medieval castle, across wooden walkways through the reed marshes.

Nearby is the village of Tykocin. Before World War II, the village had 5,000 inhabitants, Catholics and Jews. There are less than 1800 today. In the summer of 1941, all the Jewish residents of Tykocin -  an estimated 3400 – were taken to the nearby forest and shot by the Nazis. The 17th century restored Synagogue there has been preserved as a museum. Even before an awareness of this history, there is a forlorn feeling of these places in the east, with their cobbled streets and timber houses, once thriving rural communities that have been physically and metaphorically emptied within living memory.

The Wiking Inn is a different kind of experience. On the outskirts of Białystok, it’s another huge place, of dark wooded interiors, the perfect size for coach parties or group bookings. It’s near to the forest on a slight rise and a brand new road bypasses it, but it’s big enough to be noticed in the distance. While perhaps the Wikings did manage to sail down the Vistula and ravage a few Warsaw tenements, I’m not sure they made it this far. Nevertheless this place is kitted out with Norse brasses, axes, helmets and shields and there is an anachronistic disco ball in the middle of the rafters.  The wooden menu comes complete with reddish horse hair stuck to the outside, or perhaps it’s wild boar? Ravenous from our raiding and pillaging of Polish culture, we order Kiełbasa z rusztu/grilled sausage, placek po węgiersku/potato fritters ‘hungarian style’. And we’ll certainly try the Szabla Wikinga/Wiking Sword – a plate piled high with different types of meat.

To the north of Warsaw is the village of Rynia, by Zalew Zegrzyński (Zegrzyński Lake), which features a Viking settlement called Warownia Jomsborg. During the summer you might come across the invasion of a Slavic village, battles and rituals – an increasingly popular leisure activity with many Poles. While preparing to traditionally manhandle the portions of meat before us, I wonder if perhaps this will be our next stop?

She asks if I want to try ‘Potato guts Podlasie region style’, but it really does not appeal to me. These places were made in the Seventies and Eighties, she says, when there was a fashion for using wood for interior design, putting it on every wall, like in Scandanavia. You see, this became a symbol that we were becoming a richer country, that it was Ok to consume.

I recalled the shock of the new when I went to live in a house in the south of England at the beginning of the Eighties, where the huge kitchen and bathroom were encased similarly, floor to ceiling with blonde wood. I wondered, Where on earth was the nicotine stained brown floral wallpaper? At the time, it was as alien a concept as yoghurt. (The family, who were teachers, exchanged their house each summer with a family in Sweden for the holidays).

Everyone could be in Scandinavia today, or dressing up as Vikings somewhere out there in the woods. The Tavern itself is quite deserted. Apart from a couple in the corner, we are the only guests at this lunch hour.

Vodka NewsPosted on 1st March, 2010.

Alcoholic Russian Chimpanzee (named Zhora) Off to Rehab.

Uwaga! Bear on the loosePosted on 17th January, 2010.

On the news, a bear has escaped from an animal reserve in the Ukraine
and has crossed the Polish border near Przemyśl, whose coat of arms feature a walking bear with a cross above it. In the Middle Ages, bears symbolised power, bravery and tenacity towards enemies. The host of this evening, DJ Envee, is nicknamed Niedźwiedź, which means bear – shortened to NW (pronounced as a ‘v’). He escaped from Silesia and came to Warsaw in search of dance grooves. The Ukrainian bear’s motives are not known. Envee once made a record as part of a DJ combo called Innocent Sorcerers, named after the 1960  film by Andrzej Wajda about a group of young jazz musicians living a beatnik life under communism. I bought this record as a random selection several years ago and it sits next to Cool Kids of Death and Jacaszek’s Lo-Fi Stories in my Polska collection.

It turns out to be DJ Envee’s birthday party. The downstairs dancefloor is crowded. Soplica Wiśniowa is still the drink of choice, but several people are drinking shots of vodka and blue curacao.  Envee is the jovial master of ceremonies. His decks are flanked by a drummer and a trumpet player. The stage is low and people jump up to dance alongside or have shots of vodka with him, or grab a cowbell and play along. He alternates with a companion DJ, who is hunched over his laptop calling up samples and beats.

The drummer, Janek Młynarski, is amazing, hardly taking a break the whole night, and it is a long night. His is a simple, minimalist drumkit, but how he plays along with the electronic rhythms. These are famous jam sessions, I am told. But at one point the jam goes into uncharted territory with the drummer following some existential path that no-one else can fathom. DJ Envee waves his hand, shakes his head and downs another blue vodka.

There’s some crazy dancing here. No-one cares what they look like. It’s not a place for poseurs. There is one couple, refugees from some late New Romantic era – a skinny guy with floppy fringe haircut, black peg leg trousers, pvc shiny pointy shoes, huge dog tooth check jacket. Perhaps disappointed at the lack of Le Roux or Human League synth- driven pop, they leave after a short while. No matter, the party is on and it’s not going to stop till they run out of vodka. It cools down around 5am with some Nina Simone mixes. By then, it’s mostly guys left in the corners, rooted to the spot, swaying drunkenly to the music.

The snow is piled high, sodium yellow under the city lights, cars frozen, the hum of the city now silent. Icicles two feet long hang thickly from the roofs. Statues assume new shapes. I think about the bear, who by now is face down on the frozen ground, shot by tranquillisers, and will no doubt be deported from the EU. He will not join the city bears sleeping in Park Praski, or make a special guest appearance at the next DJ Envee party. Though a dancing bear would be quite something to see, on stage with the drummer and trumpet player, and centre stage, his namesake DJ Envee.

Posnania elegans Poloniae civitasPosted on 10th December, 2009.


We walked from the centre of the old market square to the river, heading for Ostrów Tumski (Cathedral Island). Earlier, we went down into the basement of the Franciscan church to see a diorama of Poznań, a scale model at 1:150, based on its boundaries in 1618. You are invited to sit in the dark for twenty seven minutes and learn about the history of the city, told with flickering lights and a recorded multi-lingual soundtrack. My impression was that this was an unfortunate location for a city; compacted into those one thousand, six hundred and twenty seconds were several centuries of construction and destruction, building up and burning down. It was under siege, it was invaded, it was leveled, it was rebuilt, it burned down again, it was invaded again, this church and that church was destroyed then raised up to the heavens again, and no sooner as one church burnt down and was rebuilt than the tallest tower collapsed. And so on and on.

I asked if Poznań was German in origin. No, No, No, I am told, This is the holy place of the birth of the Polish nation – or at least, nearby in Gniezno and in Ostrów Lednicki – this is where the first Polish Bishopric was, shortly after Poland converted to Christianity, with Gniezno the capital until the King moved to Kraków.

After the impressive diorama, in the main square we passed a man dressed as an American Indian handing out leaflets for a restuarant bar called Sioux. On the other side, a large exhibition of photographs from 1919, when after the armistice on the Western Front,  Polish militia units were still fighting remnants of the German army.


We passed by several tempting cafés serving hot chocolate, to the ever-greying outskirts, where the pavements become more cracked and overgrown, along a back street named after Venetians. The diorama had given us a useful mental map of the city, as we headed towards the eastern edge, at least as it was at the beginning of the 17th century.

The Warta moved sluggishly under the bridge, coming from its source in Silesia in swerves and curls from the south-east, flowing towards the Oder on the border with Germany. A lone fisherman cast his line into the waters on this cold desultory day. He walked down the concrete bank into the water, stumbled, the river bank shelving sharply, then he decided better and retreated. Behind him, the remains of old Prussian fortifications, built into the embankments. The island has the river on one side and a tributary, the Cybina, to the other. Here is the the Arch-cathedral Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, one of the oldest churches in Poland and the oldest Polish cathedral, with its Golden Chapel for Polish Sovereigns. We pass over the red iron bridge to Śródka, an ancient market quarter. The tarmac turns to cobbles and sand in places.

There are few people to be seen, a young girl with a sausage dog walking towards a football field, two men smoking outside of Kino Malta, an art house cinema in the old workers cultural institution, opposite the church. There have been film screenings here for over 50 years, except for two years in the 80’s when it was closed down. David Lynch’s Lost Highway, following its release in 1997, was screened every friday night for five years. The building itself once housed a disco and provided storage for fire-fighting equipment.

On the next street, there is a plaque which commemorates Zygmunt Radtke who, upon the German invasion in 1939, took the standard of his scouts unit and hid it in the basement. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, and the flag was found, providing conclusive evidence of his subversive activities. He died in Mauthausen concentration camp.

As we wander, we talk about a book I recently read, Winter Under Water (sub-titled Or, Conversation with the Elements) by James Hopkin, a relatively contemporary fictional account of a love affair between an English man and a Polish woman. He follows her to Poland in winter to resume their affair, even though she has a husband and child. The narrative moves between the perspective of the two protagonists, her letters to him and stories of her research project into forgotten histories of women, and his impressions of a foreign place and a language he does not know. The city she lives in is unnamed, a ‘zone of crumbling tenements and tin kiosks’ with a frozen river, wholly infused with winter sadness. Waiting for the next opportunity to meet her, he sits in a bar mleczny with the smell of anorak, steamed cabbage, detergent and despair, nursing his own deepening sense of melancholy. Here ‘the windows are held in place by condensation’ and the radio plays those ‘big-haired ballads from the eighties’. There is a little of this to be found here, by this riverside. Here is the shuttered office of a lung specialist, a music shop with a mural of huge flames coming out of a guitar and a keyboard, old garages coated in graffiti, an abandoned fairground, a newly refurbished music college opposite a low wooden house and a block of empty tenements – through the broken windows, we see the piec kaflowy (ceramic tile stove) lying dormant. The smell of coal smoke in the air comes from somewhere else.

We walk back into the centre, finally succumbing to the allure of a quiet café and its hot chocolate with nuts oranges and raisins. And later, some Wyborowa – which has been produced here in Poznań since 1823. The name itself derives from the comment made when the new vodka was entered into a competition and won the title of best vodka in Poland. “Exquisite!” said the president of the judging panel, literally “Wyborowa!” So we raise a glass or two to melancholy.

Safe european homePosted on 23rd November, 2009.


The wind groans, whipping around the apartment blocks. The dulling concrete surfaces are invigorated with a coat of fresh paint, bright pastel colours, the name of each block marked out in large letters, with an occasional decorative flourish – such as a painting of a white stork in flight. At the foot of the blocks and on the walls of the walkways is a reoccurrence of graffiti, a careful calligraphy rather than a random poorly realised scrawl, both fastidious and rhythmic in its application, which almost matches with the overall scheme of things.

That’s the block where the problem families are placed, she says, and that one there is where there are alcoholics placed sometimes. Do they house people in this way in England?

Yesterday, a fire brigade came to this block, somebody on the first floor left something in the kitchen on the open fire, I suppose. The brigade came with a lot of noise and from the sleeping room window we saw that they actually awoke the inhabitant who could make the block burning. It was a 130-140 kg around 60 years old man, in slippers, scratching his head and yawning while the neighbours were making a mess around…

This is the local drama of a small town on the eastern borders. Ancient forests once covered this area and stretched far to the east, home to hidden guerrilla armies in the war years and subsequently. After dark, dogs are yapping at anything that moves in the surrounding woods and meadows and lakeside undergrowth, perhaps elk, roe-deer, red foxes, beavers.  There are some wolves in these parts still, and wild boar. But living in a small town is not to be part of an idyllic arcadian state and certainly not in the winter days of little light. The sun broke through the clouds for a few hours, after days of mist and fog. Now the rain falls heavily on the tin roofs. The smell of burning wood and coal hangs on each street corner. The compensations of summer and swimming in lakes are soon forgotten.

The waitress asks, Do you want a shot or the whole bottle? We decide shots will be ok. We are drinking Sobieski cranberry vodka.  Later she says we should have had the whole bottle after all, it would have been cheaper.

Did you know this is one of the worst parts of Europe for allergies in children? You wonder if it is a legacy of Chernobyl? But the doctors don’t pay close attention. They nod for 5 minutes and write a prescription for Zyrtec. Here you can go to one medical centre only, or go to the hospital, so there isn’t much choice. If you talk about homeopathy, they don’t know about it. If you talk about food intolerances, they say, But everyone around here eats white bread, what’s the problem? And I tell them, look here, everyone is sick. They worry about flu, they say there’s an epidemic spreading from Lithuania, rumours and more rumours. They say, You must be careful, avoid contact. Then I go to the kindergarten and I see every child is coughing and sniffling. You know, I would rather treat my children myself than have them asleep all the time because of Zyrtec.

Our conversation shifts from health issues to making an inventory of Birmingham bands she has heard of. From Editors, we slip back further and further in time. Duran Duran, the Beat, UB40, Steel Pulse, then Black Sabbath leads us down a side-track to Aleister Crowley, but the mood lightens with her impromptu rendition of one verse from ‘Come on Eileen’ by Dexys Midnight Runners.

The wind howls, the small town sleeps and keeps its own dark secrets. On these eastern borderlands all that remains is, as one commentator wrote, ‘a drama of failed encounters’.

goodbye, golden autumnPosted on 2nd October, 2009.


The rain that started in the mountains has moved west. The fabled golden Polish autumn is fast disappearing into winter twilight. People move from their tables on the sidewalk. The waitress seems a little bored and sharp. Yes, what do you want!

Death of a virgin, I suggest, which I saw scrawled on a blackboard earlier in the day. That’s a mix of vodka,  peach liqueur,  lemon juice, orange juice and 7up. Originally price: 17 zlotis, but now on offer for 14.

A rickety train from Katowice brought us here, to Gliwice. “Please, the visual boards are not working so please pay attention to the announcements.” That is the only clear announcement, the others are lost in static and feedback. Is it such a problem to put in proper speakers, so you can hear what is said? I assure her that we have the same speakers on railway stations in England. The passengers ask each other if this is the correct train on the correct platform. We nod at each other nervously and get on board.

This part of Silesia has much in common with the industrial West Midlands of yesteryear, large empty red brick factories, old mines and some still working. Coal and steel, mines and mills, dirty and stained concrete train stations, overloaded with graffiti. At the station in Katowice, there are billboards which declare forthcoming improvements, and indeed the area around the rail terminal needs particular improvement. On the platform, pasted in random places are several sheets of photocopied notices for missing people with basic information and a photo: 38 year old male, 31 year old male, 19 year old male. One has no photo, and minimal information – simply the name, then Female, height 160 cm, fair hair and the date she was last seen. It seems infinitely sad and hopeless.

Elsewhere, there are new shopping malls – some with large cracks, as a taxi driver tells us, What did they expect? Everything around here subsides! They didn’t pour enough concrete, he says, they built it on the cheap. It’s always the same. There are green spaces and old plazas with Soviet war memorials surrounded by high rises in poor condition. Katowice lies in the centre of the largest conurbation in Poland and is one of the largest in the European Union, with a population of 2.7 million. So far, I have seen more drunkards here and street beggars than anywhere else in Poland.


In 1953 Katowice was renamed Stalinogród, but this was never popular, and the historic name was restored in 1956. One building that you can’t help but notice is the Spodek concert hall, dating from 1971, built in a flying saucer shape. I have lost track of the number of times people have told me that they saw Depeche Mode here. It seems the city is re-orientating itself through festivals and events. This summer, Katowice hosted the Tauron Nowa Muzyka Festival, in the grounds of a former coal mine, within walking distance of the town centre. There are blues festivals, metal festivals and beer festivals.


In Gliwice, one of the adjacent cities, there are a lot of alcohol shops, pretty Austro-Hungarian era buildings, many large and empty, small parks and a well-kept rynek. On the pavement, a man turns cobs of sweetcorn in a frying pan on a gas stove, offering it for sale. Wander a little way from this centre and you will find unkempt but impressive buildings, old wooden doors ajar with dusty corridors with metal staircases, geometric patterns cut out of each step, casting curious shadows along the hallway. Smoky dark exteriors, leading to abandoned courtyards, but the windows and window frames are sparkling clean. This is a feature of Silesia, she tells me, because of the coal dust in the air, they keep their windows clean. It is a source of pride.


Tonight, I feel I should be listening to Pola Negri (who was born with the equally wonderful name of Apolonia Chałupiec) singing Ich Hab an Dich Gedacht, but instead in this bar they play Glenn Miller’s Chattanooga Choo Choo, followed by Pink Floyd. Ah, I grew up listening to Pink Floyd, she tells me, My Dad played them all the time. He had a wooden ruler from school that he’d kept with Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Janis Joplin inked into it. A generation later, she went to see Roger Waters solo concert in Warsaw, but in her opinion he murdered his own songs. She also went to see Madonna, whose first Polish concert was in August – on the feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. She was unperturbed by the protests from conservative Catholics, some of whom claimed the singer was a ‘crypto-Satanist’ while others held prayers to stop the concert. But God help anyone who inks her name into a ruler.

39 Grzybowska StreetPosted on 19th August, 2009.


These blocks were built, so close to the city centre, for some of the key workers of the state. For example, he said, I have for a neighbour a former air stewardess and a postal worker. So there are a lot of people here now in their 60’s and 70’s, not many young people.

He is one of the young ones, involved in theatre in the city. He shares his 11th floor flat with an opera choral singer, and he is fortunately a fan of opera –  Strauss’s Salome in particular, performances of which he has seen in several different cities – as well as being interested in cynology and felinology.

We look out of his window on the city skyline.

I think there was a park here, he says, before these huge buildings, and before that of course here lay the ruins of the ghetto. Now, there is a big expensive hotel there, and they plan to build three new big skyscrapers, which will completely obscure the view of the Palace of Culture – which, though partially concealed, tonight glows with an ethereal yellow light.

One of these new skyscrapers will be a 54 storey tall glass structure designed by Daniel Libeskind. Złota 44, a luxury apartment tower in the shape of a tall thin sail, will stand 192 metres high – the third highest skyscraper in the city – with 251 luxury apartments. It now lies dormant, a skeletal fraction of its proposed size, all construction halted. The credit crunch seems to have crept upon this city, though across the river a dozen huge cranes or more encircle the site of the new national football stadium.

The view here, they like to call it Little Manhatten. I think this is exaggerating. It’s a little loud here sometimes, when the school kids are in the playground down there or there is a sports match. It was meant to be a quiet area, and a bit luxurious. They planned swimming pools on the roof. This didn’t happen. I guess the communist authorities ran out of money.

The flats are not so special. The kitchen has no window, the bathroom has no window, it is too hot here in the mornings. There isn’t even a balcony, just the impression of one, a door that opens to nowhere. There is a metal gate is across the doorway at waist height to stop you falling out. A large bottle of Smirnoff is on the table – 3 litres or more – and a bottle of home-made from Loomza, snacks and a tuna salad. This is maybe not such a good location for a wild vodka party.

I think there are too many monuments around here, he says. Yes, it’s important to have a memory of the ghetto, but even to buy a carton of milk I have to pass several monuments. There’s just no escaping it.

Mazovian nightsPosted on 16th August, 2009.


Somewhere on the Mazovian plain, a small town like any other. A few thousand people live here. I would call it a village, but my host insists a village has less than nine houses. On the outskirts, fields of corn ripening, a graveyard on a small incline, strips of woodland and farmland, then a few dusty streets with a secondary school, some council offices and police station, a library, a hairdresser, with two or three shops in cabins – a bakery, a clothes shop and one selling general foodstuffs and alcohol. There is an imposing church and a small park with a new children’s playground and picnic area and a small swampy lake. There is a tributary of a river nearby, which provides some fishing. A railway line runs to one side of the town, along a raised bank, cutting through the fields and woods in a straight line as far as the eye can see. The tracks are a little overgrown, and the old station has crumbled to ruin. It’s raining and we seek refuge in the library and talk to a man who has been labouring in the west of Ireland for two years. He likes to read Stephen King books. In Ireland, he explains that they have some books in Polish language in the library, which he has read twice over, but no Salem’s Lot or Dark Tower in his own language. He complains about the food in Ireland. I’ve lost weight, he says, look, my clothes don’t fit me anymore! The contractors feed us Indian food. How can this satisfy my appetite? He is filling up on kiełbasa and sernik while he is here visiting.

Most people living here commute to work in the larger town nearby, which has a wide slow river – which could be quite an attraction, but it is unkempt and unloved. Rubbish litters the muddy water and clogs the banks and gathers under the parapet of the bridge. Some farmers supplement their income with agro-tourism, letting out rooms to holiday guests, and often providing an excellent breakfast and dinner. The meats are home cured and delicious, and with freshly picked vegetables from the garden. For the evening I buy a bottle of Sobieski, just ‘golden Dankowski rye from the fields of Mazowse’ and pure water, and ask to put it in the freezer. Mr Farmer notices this and invites me to a special meeting. This is translated to me as: We’ll meet later. At midnight. In the woods. I’ll have a treat ready for you, wait and see.

The moon is full and yellow, hanging hugely above the treeline. We follow the path through the woods as instructed. We come to a clearing, where there are some farm buildings, mostly disused, some of their roofs collapsing inwards. I’m not sure about this, says J, but what the hell. There is a light in one of the buildings, which is used as a pig abattoir. The interior, with lurid lime-green walls and a concrete floor, is bathed in a flickering fluorescent light. There are various metal tables and electric callipers, hooks and chains and pulleys along the walls. For a moment feel like we have intruded on the den from a serial killer in an American road movie.

Mr Farmer is waiting for us, makes us welcome, and eagerly explains the process of slaughtering an animal and the uses of the different implements. We pass through this first room into the white tiled cold store, then into what looks like a broom cupboard. And here is the laboratory for producing his home-made vodka. There is barely room for the three of us, to stand in between the array of pipes and condensers, pots and pans. He explains the process, and his favourite recipes. A small pipe leads to an old tin pan (green on the outside with delicate daisy patterns) into which the precious liquid drips, drop by drop by drip. I find myself thinking about the infinitely slow formation of ancient continents from the break up of Pangaea. It will take till dawn to make half a litre, but he has prepared a mug full for us to taste. He checks the alcohol content. Over 85% proof. He seems pleased. He offers us a shot. Don’t do it, says J. I throw it back in one. Mr Farmer, who is impressively built and would make a good wrestler, looks at me intently for a moment, then slaps me hard on the back and says, Bronek, You true Polish hero! J takes the second glass, and gently sips the rocket fuel.

The evening unfolds. More is drunk. We find our way home. That wasn’t so bad, says J, we can walk in a straight line. It’s dark in the woods and I can’t tell. The next morning, near to afternoon, we wake up stiffly and find bruises on our back and legs. At some point, says J, I think we fell down those steps. I agree, though I can’t remember.

PowiększeniePosted on 28th July, 2009.

In a club named (possibly) after the 1966 Antonioni film, Blow Up, a track by Joy Division – ‘These Days’ – blares out of the speakers above my head. The song was recorded in January 1980 at Pennine Studios, Oldham, before most of these people existed. It was released as a b-side to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. These days, you can get it as a ringtone.

We should switch to vodka, she says, but I don’t know if my body would like it. Or my head. I won’t drink on my own, but if I did I’d get hammered pretty quickly. And people would laugh!

She explains how she has survived several months in Granada, avoiding the pitfalls of flamenco dancers and studying the local language with some finesse. Back in Warsaw, with a new job starting Monday, she found herself in a bar whose lower floors collected denizens of the freshly arrived in the city and trying very hard to be cool and hip variety. After a few drinks, they didn’t look so bad, or so hip. Sitting at the bar with her friend, she was approached by a man who introduced himself as a film director who has been busy in New York shooting a film. Have you heard of Faye Dunaway, by any chance? He offers to buy them drinks. They are not particularly impressed and later, after several drinks, she forgets his name, leaves the bar and gets caught up in a stag party on the loose. She evades their clutches    and congratulates herself with a few more vodkas. She was home, in Poland after all.


She remembers Tarifa, on the beach at night, here at the southern most point in Europe, with the wind coming from Africa, with bottles of wódka żołądkowa gorzka – what else! – and those English people were pulling faces as they knocked back shot after shot. They said, How can you drink it like that? She wondered why they seemed so surprised. This is what Polish girls do, she said.

But upon this particular night, on safe and familiar territory, this close acquaintance indeed proves to be her downfall. On an ordinary street, she misses a step, severely sprains an ankle, and ends up in the hospital. And, as a consequence, arrives at her first day at work on crutches. Uwaga! The perils of vodka drinking.

text message from województwo podlaskiePosted on 28th June, 2009.

I receive text messages on a regular basis, updating me on what I am missing. So I reproduce one here.

Rye vodka with neighbours, talking about vodka making ingredients, including fermented strawberry syrup in cans thrown into the forest by a local factory. na zdrowie!

Later on she said, The illegally abandoned (in the forest, by a local fruit and vegetables processing plant) fermented strawberry jam barrels used by the villagers to make bimber is such a lovely and absurd image. Nothing can go unused, eh? Unfortunately, my travels have not taken me to the heart of vodka production in recent months (though they will soon enough). Instead, by way of sympathy, Polish friends bring me suitcases of Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka Korzenna z Miodem (with honey).

And sometimes I receive compensatory picture messages from my daughter, whether in Birmingham or Manchester, who seems to have forsaken wine for vodka. How time flies…


Strzemiennego!Posted on 28th February, 2009.


The kissing clarinet player got a little too close for comfort. Admittedly, the room was small and there was a crowd. He darted in and out of the tight-packed audience, charming the women, and this was a cellar like venue, but not cavernous. He caught her by surprise, leaning into her with a sinuous and practiced ease as he passed. His lips clung to the reed yet somehow seemed to run over her earlobe and across her cheek, the notes still ringing out – none were missed – and they were precariously balanced for a moment, on a precipice of intimacy, she leaning further away as he leaned closer into her body. She later said that he was her physical type until this moment of physical contact and that she preferred a serious man, the very opposite of a showman. He had a theatricality he clearly enjoyed demonstrating throughout each and every song. Perhaps he is a frustrated actor, she commented. She fixed her eyes on me. Why didn’t I take his hat off? And why didn’t you kick over a chair and punch him? Why didn’t you defend my honour?

She was, I think, now demonstrating her own talent for melodrama, and the atmosphere of the evening allowed for it. The snow lay outside the window, the room was candlelit, the food and wine – ordered in between performances – were delicious. There were drinking songs of course. The Hassids are drinking, they sang. The audience sang along.


She knew the accordion player. Our tickets were reserved, with a table at the front with the band half a metre distant. Their vodka glasses sat on the table alongside the wine, Krupnik and small jars of Slivovitz. After the show – and what a show – we continued to drink more Krupnik.  The accordian player joined us. He said he hadn’t drunk Krupnik in years, but he has good memories of it. When he was 19 and he first joined a band, they played for a documentary film, over five hours in studio and there was a bottle of Krupnik drunk for every hour, at the very least. He enjoyed that experience.


The hours slipped away into the dark of morning. Come on, one last drink or two. Strzemiennego! (Which seems to translate as, Jump on the horse!) We walked through the bone chilling empty streets to a gallery in another deep and warm basement. Ukrainian cognac made an appearance. At least, that’s what they called it. By the time we got back to her Grandfather’s flat, uncomfortably close to dawn, I was so cold and shivering I needed to defrost under the shower in the tiny too small to stretch out PRL era bathtub. There would be, for sure, a hangover the next day, to be ameliorated by a walk through the snow and bright sunshine in Park Saski, and a deeply appreciated fresh carrot and apple juice in small bar. She said, I was very restrained and well-behaved, not a wild gypsy woman, but knowing me I knew this would break. And it did. Alcohol melted me.

Conversation in Szczecin: 3Posted on 15th December, 2008.

It turns out she is an old school friend of Marcin. She trained as a nurse but now lives in Malta, working at a scuba diving school, and is visiting with her boyfriend for Christmas. Over the last three years, she says, we’ve seen the size of fish get smaller and smaller. The Mediterranean is being over-fished. I won’t eat fish anymore. I’ll eat meat, we can breed cows and pigs and chickens easily, but we’re raping the oeans. It’s the only way I can put it.

Her boyfriend, also a diver, says, We have been diving in the tuna pens, to see all these huge beautiful fish penned in, caught somewhere off the coast of Tunisia, using spotter planes and then they’re hemmed in with ships, penned and then moved to Malta, so the fish is fresh to send by 747 to Japan, driven by the demand for sushi and sashimi.

That reminds me, says Marcin, there is a nice sushi restuarant open nearby, over the tram tracks. We must go.

The diver continues his story, It’s amazing to dive into this vortex of tuna. You have to be a little careful, as they become blind on one side, swimming round and round in the same direction. they have sharp fins which can cut you. They don’t get spooked too easily, but you still have to be careful.

The  nurse turned diver smiles, Of course, I ate carp at Christmas Eve, as this is traditional.

We toast the carp and the tuna. We are now tasting Starka, which is a locally produced rye vodka aged for a minimum of 10 years in old barrels. In this sense it is compared with whisky, though it seemed more like a brandy than any other vodka I have tasted. But I also get confused between the sushi and sashimi situation.

Conversation in Szczecin: 2Posted on 14th December, 2008.


Each time we see Marcin, he has a gift of some kind. Which usually involves alcohol, though the early morning apple cake from the bakery is also most welcome. Today he has a bottle of ‘special alcohol’ from Greece, where he recently visited. Greek vodka, he laughs, if you can believe in such a thing! This is in a mineral water bottle. Don’t leave it by the bedside at night, he says, in case you get very confused. He explains that it is some special kind of spirit made by young children as part of a festival. You know, it smells like the glue that I used to put together my Airfix plastic model kits. It is an acquired taste. We agree to stick to Patryk’s homemade, which may or may not be classified as vodka but has the taste of oranges and reminds me more of the Peloponnese than Pomerania. I ask if this is perhaps Nalewki? They raise their glasses and laugh and toast our health one more time. Drink, this is good for the legs. He is a fan of salsa and after sushi we will later go through empty streets  and icy fog to a rehearsal at Klub Contrasty. Sunday night was for pleasure, he says, Tonight is lesson.

Conversation in Szczecin: 1Posted on 10th December, 2008.


Angela recommended we collect blackberries, and soak them in spiritus and sugar for a minimum of three weeks. She calls it, Woman’s Vodka, because it is sweet and syrupy. I asked her why she drank her vodka down in one. She said, I cannot explain but I know English people are wimps and can only sip at things. Stanyck then said, It dulls the taste if you don’t drink it down in one. He had a Pepsi chaser with each shot of vodka. I asked him if this didn’t also kill the taste? He shook his head and said, Have you heard how Russian people drink vodka? They take a shot and then smell bread. In Poland we take a little juice or Pepsi, this is the way we do it.

I ask them why always clink the glasses? They reply, almost in unison: You can see the vodka, you can smell the vodka, you can taste it, but you can’t hear it…

Conversation in a Warsaw bar: 5Posted on 30th November, 2008.


At last, the first snowfall of winter. There was a small flurry the day before, but by the time we finished our Indian meal (at a place called Mandala) it was melting in the darkness.

Plan A was to go to an art opening in Praga. Plan B was to find a warm and cosy bar. I have to be up early in the morning to go to Sejny, but this Saturday night seems to stretch out leisurely before us as we finally end up in a bar near Pl. Zbawiciela. Later, I find out this is described on one web site as follows: ‘Drunkenness is rife and encouraged, and it’s only fair to note this place has become a bit of a magnet for expat lads looking to tap up impressionable Polish girls.’

Tonight, I can only hear Polish speakers and my city-by-night guide is not so impressionable. She orders a particular vodka mix – żubrówka and wiśniówka, with pepper added.  She explains the name of this drink is ‘Spieprzaj Dziadu’ – which is intended as an insult against a particular politician.  I fail to pronounce effectively in Polish.

She explains: So the story of the President and drink… in 2002 during the campaign for the President of Warsaw, Kaczynski got involved in the short argument with some old git. The press was around because it was right after some public meeting. This guy accused Kaczyński that ‘You, politicians, change parties as rats, chasing from one to another, if you have some business in any’, and the response from Kaczyński was ‘spieprzaj dziadu’. This can be translated as: ‘Sod off, you old wanker’ or ‘Sod off, you old git’ or even ‘Bugger off, you old git.’ But none of these versions carries the meaning that can be connected to the drink. Why? Because the word ‘pieprzyć’ in Polish, from which derives an imperative form ‘spieprzaj’, means both ‘to add pepper’ and ‘to fuck’. You can ‘pieprzyć coś’ (add pepper to something) or ‘pieprzyć kogoś’ (‘fuck someone’, meaning to have sex or to aggressively offend). Then this story of swearing was picked up during the Presidential campaign in 2005 and somehow reversed, as it has become a key sentence for all that and for all those who were and are against Kaczyński, his way of conducting political affairs, his political allies and the so called Fourth RP (the projected ‘better’ Polish Republic in the vision of Kaczysnki, with new constitution etc., now we have Third RP).
This drink is very Polish, she finally says, Polish liquors with pepper added, I love the idea.
There is no equivalent to this drink in England, or no politician that merits such emotions. Normally my city-by-night guide might be sitting at home, listening to Satyricon (black metal Norwegian band). But we have several toasts with a glass of ‘Spieprzaj Dziadu’, and watch the snow fall. We walk back to the central station and miss the night buses, and go into the station to wait for the dawn ones. There is a big crowd in front of a TV monitor, watching the sports news. They disperse when the next programme comes on, which is about buying a flat in Ochota, in a newly built gated community. There isn’t much about the quality of the flat itself – the big selling feature appears to be the amount of CCTV and security guards. Is Ochota this dangerous? I look around me at the sleepers and the all night drinkers. There is a guy having an argument with a soft drinks machine. He kicks it until it disgorges its contents.  I have often seen an old guy here on the concourse, who has a small portable chess set, who sits next to you and asks you to play. As the game progresses, he suggests politely you put some money down on the outcome. It’s a gentle hustle. He’s not here tonight, or this morning as it surely now is.

My city-by-night guide, who might or might not also be a poet, concludes the conversation: But tonight if we haven’t missed the buses we wouldn’t have a chance to feel the snowflakes melting on our cheeks. I love the sound of snow cracking under my feet and the way the spinning snowflakes shine in the city lights. If we weren’t putting vodka into our projects or projecting vodka on to our lives we would be just unproductively asleep and the first snow would just pass unrecognised.

But sometimes I need some sleep.


Home-makingPosted on 29th November, 2008.


It is particular kind of cold, seeping damp into my bones and fingers numb.
We are on a northern border near Lithuania, a mere lake away but I won’t be swimming today however tempting the clear calm inviting water looks. A house is being built on this gently rolling land, within walking distance of the old family home of the poet Czesław Miłosz, what was once the local Manor House. That particular wooden building is now ruinous, left empty during the decades of Soviet occupation, but it will be repaired and renewed over the next few years as part of an ongoing cultural project.


This house, on the other side of the woods, is currently a plan and a large hole dug in the ground. We gather here to mark the laying of the cornerstone, facing north-east, towards Mother Russia. A coin belonging to the Grandmother of the woman of the house-to-be will be laid on the cornerstone, for luck as tradition has it, and doused for further luck with a copious helping of vodka. The vodka is the best in Poland, says the man of the house with a gentle laugh. It is Finlandia. The coin, which has an image of a long-dead Tsar, is ceremoniously put in place, the vodka is poured, the mortar slapped on top and the first stone laid by the builder. Then, each and every person present, one by one, all down a shot of vodka to celebrate this moment. Then we eat a bowl of bigos, to warm our hands and bellies on this particularly cold morning. And a chill rain comes down, but no one is miserable. The builders go back to work, turning stiff sods of mud.
A bulldozer splutters to life and trundles forward to dig up another hole,
which one day will be a small domestic lake.

It feels both a gentle pleasure and a privilege to be here and witness this moment. After, we walk up the rise and down through the woods to the Manor House, its wet boards in need of some tender loving care.


Text Message from BerlinPosted on 21st September, 2008.

I have found a bar selling Żubrówka and cloudy apple juice. 
All is good.


As autumn leaves fall…Posted on 20th September, 2008.


Use milled rye. Pour hot  water over it to make it really sweet. Cool it to 27 degrees. Add yeast. Let it ferment for three or four days. Distill it. It is very easy to burn it, so distill it using steam. Get the water boiling hot and steam it through a pipe. The most important thing is what you distill and ferment it in. If you use a metal container, you can get iron particles. My Dad used glass, and stainless steel sometimes. Charcoal filters remove the impurities and carbon filters remove any smells.

This is his recipe:
1 kilo of sugar
3 litres of water
10 decagrammes of fresh yeast
26/27 degrees
7-9 days to ferment it
Cool it for a day or two
Distill it
Add fruit or jam for taste

You can use tomato puree because tomatoes have lots of potassium and yeast likes potassium.

The best one is when you just use rye, or the yeast for making wine. The wine yeast takes longer because it requires longer temperature.

don’t try this at home, kidsPosted on 19th September, 2008.


Like to flavour your vodka? Put sugar onto a thin slice of bread skin, burn it and drip into the glass. (I have a bad memory of my daughter lighting a glass of absinthe and her friend burning her lip.)

Notes from the heart of conservative Poland: 1Posted on 18th September, 2008.


The old manor house is crumbling into the earth. No-one has seen the owners, who are believed to live in America if they exist at all. The aristocrats sold up in the 1920’s, fled, left behind their debts. We climb through the brambles and overgrown foliage, like in a fairy tale. There is a chill in the air. There is hardly a sound. A carpet of plums lies undisturbed at our feet. There used to be an orchard here with apple, pear and cherry trees. Edible berries on the bushes remain untouched. You can still make out the shape of the grounds,  planted with Canadian redwood, spruce and pine, linden and czarny bez (black elder). The roof is collapsing, the once solid floors cracking apart. I hesitate to descend to the basement. Bits of wooden furniture are strewn about, some rusting keys, parts of a spinning loom. There are hardly any white tiles left in place on the floor to ceiling stove at the centre of the house. As a child she was scared to come here, thinking it was haunted. It is beyond repair, but must have been a fine home once upon a time.

Once upon a time, war came to these parts. There was a wooden house, built by her Grandfather. This was occupied by the Polish army, then the German Army, then the Red Army. Why, no-one knows. It does not seem a strategically important place. It is not like the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte at the battle of Waterloo.  It is not even the highest point, this being some ways away and despite being called the Big Hill, it looks like a small mound with a scattering of trees. Woods obscure some of the views. Perhaps it was just comfortable, this farmhouse of shaved logs, and that may have been sufficient reason for weary soldiers far from their own hearth. 


We drank vodka, his home made recipe. The Germans shot people like dogs, he said, they had no mercy. Not all Germans, you understand, to be more specific, I mean the SS troops. For a time we had to run away into the woods and we ate boiled flour with water, and boiled swede. The Russians were more friendly. They weren’t so bad. You know, they were sad to leave, singing an old song, “Why did we have to get to know each other, oh why did we part…?” They went back to Moscow and sent letters to the family, but this was a time when partisans were still active in the countryside and it was best not to reply. My Mother was killed in the yard in 1944 during an artillery bombardment, Russian shells or German shells, no-one really knew. I was ten years old. Two years prevously, I saw vodka being made for the first time by my Father and Uncle. I didn’t touch a drop until I was eighteen. Or smoke a cigarette.

This current house dates from 1972. You can still see the old foundation stones in a corner of the basement, alongside a store of local wine, coal, potatoes and the ancient accoutrements to make bimber. The essential equipment came from a man near Gdansk. They look like parts of a rusted car to me. These are dairy farms, producing milk for one of the biggest producers in Poland, and in particular for serek wiejski, a local cottage cheese. (I am not a fan of cottage cheese, but this is delicious at breakfast.) And, as is tradition, they produce their own vodka for home consumption.


She is drinking crème źołądkowa gorzka. Children’s vodka, her Father says quietly, though later she proves to be quite capable of matching him, homemade glass for glass. There is a bottle of Orzechówka Lubelska on the table at the beginning of the evening. I have to say this walnut vodka is one of my least favourite drinks, a little too smoky and like cough medicine for my palate.

We talk about how to make vodka. I feel like I am falling into the past, of my childhood visits to family in Ireland, to the bars in the back rooms and the potcheen stills. And something about the landscape reminds me of this too.


He tells me he used to make vodka without yeast, just with rye and some herbs and honey, and how it tasted just like cognac. But it was hard to make he said, it often failed.

In communist times there were great efforts made to stamp out home production.
I have seen numerous propaganda films about the evils of bimber.  I ask, What’s the situation like now?

He shrugs: It is not illegal to make it for your own consumption at home. It is not advertised that you make your own vodka, but since 1989 I don’t think people pay attention. There was a guy in the next village that died. Police came and investigated and asked, What were you drinking? Home-made of course. They took away a sample to the lab to test and the alcohol was fine. He was 27 years old and had a heart attack and cracked his head open on the ground, but it was not the quality of the alcohol that caused the problem. He concludes that alcohol is good for your heart. He says that most heart medicines are based on alcohol. (I resolve to invite Dr. Middleton for a drink to discuss this matter in further detail).

I text Iwona and ask her what are the rules about making home-made vodka. She replies, enigmatic as usual: Only one rule, when it is proposed one should not refuse.

What else did I learn from my evening? In these parts, the definition of an alcoholic is a man who drinks alone. And though he tells me that sleep is the best cure for a hangover, he rises every day at 5 am to milk the cows. I will try to milk the cows, but later in the day.

As I drift off to sleep, all I can hear is a gentle wind, rain and cows, cows, cows.


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.


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.


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.


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


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…

Short Vodka Stories No: 3Posted on 1st May, 2008.

On St. Patrick’s Day, my attention was drawn to an old press release from Irish Distillers, which quoted Pablo Picasso as the source of the following statement: “The three most important things in the past century have been The Blues, Cubism and … Polish Vodka.”  The company held a special dinner to celebrate the arrival of two premium Polish Vodkas – Wyborowa Exquisite and Zubrowka Bison Grass – in Ireland. At the reception, the Domestic Commercial Director told the guests: “We in Irish Distillers are delighted to provide Irish consumers not only with a variety of premium and super premium vodkas but also a selection of vodka from Poland, the home of vodka.  Our Polish vodkas combine authentic Polish heritage, innovative packaging and the highest quality spirits.”  Guests were welcomed with Zubrowka Green Destiny Cocktails and Chilled Wyborowa Exquisite.  Wyborowa Expresso Martinis were served after dinner.  Vodka now has a 40% share of the spirits market  in Ireland.  

The Taste CommitteePosted on 1st April, 2008.


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.

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


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).