We do our fair share of drinking, especially on this vacation. Why not? We we rarely drive a car, don’t have to be sober for work, and it’s just nice to relax with a cold beer. There have been a few dry countries, thank you Morocco, but most often we have about a drink a day. In Poland however, we were like frat boys on a perpetual weekend. Evidently, this kind of behavior doesn’t even begin to enlighten you to the kind of all-out decadence that would go on at a Polish wedding. Our doctor has to be glad we didn’t make it to one.
You see, the Polish have taken alcohol to an art form. We have sampled many local drinks abroad but never so many as here, and especially not so many which are home-made.
You can start your Polish swilling experience with classic potato- or rye-derived czysta (clear) vodka which every Polish citizen holds dear to their heart. “The best vodka is made only in Poland!” most proclaim, it’s origins starting in the early Middle Ages.
We’re not huge vodka swillers, but for the purposes of blog-research, we spent our time enjoying their more unique seasoned vodkas (wódki wytrawne) like Gorzka Żołądkowa, literally translated as “bitter stomach vodka,” though we found it rather sweet and easy to drink. Another favorite, Żubrówka, is a dry, herb-flavoured vodka that is distilled from rye and made with bison grass which gives it a “grassy” or fresh flavor. Though you’ll see Żubrówka in the states, you won’t find the same flavor: bison grass contains the toxic compound coumarin, which is prohibited as a food additive by the FDA, and importing of Żubrówka into the United States was banned in 1978 (thanks wikipedia).
What you find at Bevmo is a neutralized, reformulated, coumarin-free export version. All of these are about 40% alcohol or more; good and strong while surprisingly easy to drink.
The Polish also produce liquors like Advocat (though the origins of this drink are in the Netherlands), an egg cream liquor which is particularly good for topping ice cream. Overwhelmingly thick and sweet, something like eggnog, but more like drinking dough from sugar cookies — just add a lot of alcohol and you will understand the flavor.
Though not Polish, we also really enjoyed a Czechoslovakian liquor called Becherovka. It tastes like alcohol-laced gingerbread. Have a shot of Becherovka and a shot of Advocat for your very own readymade Christmas any time of year!
Not all Polish alcohol is quite so strong. While Polish beers may not be world-renowned, we found their warmed beers infused with ginger, cloves or fruit syrup, to have just the right taste and warmth for a cool night in the mountain town of Zakopane. Spiced mulled wine, and hot Miód Pitny (also commonly known as Mead or Honey Liquor) was just as enjoyable, especially with the local Góralskie Obiady (Highlander Feasts).
Poland actually has quite a few honey-based liquors. The lightest is Miód Pitny with an alcohol content ranging from that of a mild ale to a strong wine. It comes in 3 different varieties, defining the level of sweetness and water to honey ratio. 1/3 honey to 2/3 water is called Trójniak, half and half is called Dwójniak (our favorite), and with 2/3 honey to 1/3 water Półtorak is the sweetest.
Next is Krupnik, a stronger spirit of about 40% alchol. A sort of honey liquor based on grain alcohol, which can be consumed straight or combined with orange, lemon, cinnamon, clove and some boiling water for a good winter drink. Unlike Mead, this is not a strongly sweet drink but has a nice hint of honey which hides the strength of the alcohol.
A homemade honey alcohol would be called Miodówka, in the genus of Nalewka, and is usually between 40% to 50% depending on how strong the family wants to make it. In Krakow we tried a version we would like to call “Fire Honey.” This Miodówka had about 80% alcohol! It was like a vaporous burn in your throat that evaporated quickly, leaving a slightly sweet aftertaste. Surprisingly, we would sooner drink this than a shot of Bacardi 151 Rum.
But our blue ribbon goes to homemade Nalewka. The process starts with pure grain alcohol — as close to 100% as seemingly possible, which is known as Spiritus. Fruits, nuts or just about anything else you’d like to infuse the liquor with is mixed with sugar and fermented in the alcohol. After some time more Spiritus is added, and the whole business goes to live in the attic for a year or two.
Every family seems to have several of these Nalewki aging to perfection with flavors like cherry leaves, peach or our favorite, quince. The longer they age, the more fine a flavor they get. If you don’t wait long enough, the Spiritus can still be quite mean and, in our opinion, could surely cause sterility or blindness (but we’re doctors so feel free to try for yourself!).
Liquor stores sell varieties of Nalewka, most commonly the cherry-flavored Wisniówka, at lower alcohol percentages like 30%. These are alright, but for the real experience and often the best flavor, charm your way into a Polish family home and taste from their stock, it’s definitely worth your time. We were blessed with samples every time we expressed our wonder at this homestyle tradition.
But if you really want to learn a thing or two about drinking from the Poles, just go to a Polish wedding. As we had it told to us, a Polish wedding tradition has the father of the bride bringing 2 bottles of vodka for every guest, and all of the Nalewka that can be rounded up. When the huge reception commences the live band (fiddle, trumpet and accordion) can be called on to play well into the morning. The days after the wedding are called Poprawinny, or “corrections,” the reception must continue for as many days as it takes to drink all of the alcohol. Na zdrowie (To your health)!
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