Poland Traditional Polish Vodka
Siwucha - Traditional Polish Vodka (Polska Wódka)
Text & Images - Copyright © 2008 Kevin Hulsey
The making of traditional home-brewed vodka, known colloquially as siwucha (pronounced she-voo-ha, and meaning "moonshine"), has been a cottage industry in Poland for several hundred years. Known originally as aqua vitae, or "water of life," distilled spirits made there way to Poland and Russia between the 12th and 17th centuries, and by the early 1900s there were thousands of distilleries in Krakow, Poznan, Silesia and Gdansk, as well as an unknown number home-distillers. Today, distilleries produce most of the vodka consumed in poland, but there is still a thriving market for boutique, hand-made vodkas produced by home-distillers.
The name "vodka" is a diminutive of the Polish word woda and the Russian word voda, both meaning "water." Its first use dates back to 1405, when it was used to describe medicinal potions listed in court documents from the Sandomierz Voivodeship region in western Poland. In the 1600s, the distillation of vodka was documented in Jerzy Potanski's Wódka lub gorzala. In Russia, the medicinal use of distilled grain spirits was also referred to as vodka khlebnogo vina, or "vodka of bread wine."
Clear Vodka vs Flavored Vodka
Traditionally, the Poles like to flavor their vodka with wild grasses, flowers, or various root vegetables which can be similar to the horseradish root (Armoracia rusticana). These flavored vodkas are called wódka wytrawna, or "seasoned vodkas," and they tend to represent the flavor and smell of the particular region from which they originate. Pure, unflavored vodka is called wódki czyste, or "clean vodkas" (aka clear vodkas).
Home-Brewed Polish Vodka in Krakow - It tastes much better than it looks!
Don't mistake the term "flavored vodka" for the vanilla, lemon, cherry or orange flavored vodkas that are so popular today. This type or flavored vodka is called wódki smakowe, or "taste vodkas," and their flavoring agents (flavourants) are mere afterthoughts which are added as marketing gimmicks. Traditional Polish flavored vodkas can be very subtle, as their flavorings simply reflect the natural environment where they were created.
Rye & Grain vs Potato Vodka
The general consensus is that the smoothest and purest tasting vodka is now distilled from either potatoes, spelt (Triticum spelta) or rye (Secale cereale), with those made from common wheat (Triticum aestivum), barley malt (Hordeum vulgare) and corn being of a slightly lower stature. This is not to say that good tasting vodka cannot be made from lesser grains or sugars, and the distilling process itself (fermentation, charcoal filtration, etc.) can also play an important role in the taste of the final product.
Selection of Polish Vodka (Rozne Rodze Polskiej Wodki)
Although vodka can also be distilled from grapes, molasses, soy, sugar beets, sugar cane and whey, the term "traditional vodka" would typically refer to spirits made with either potatoes or grains from the Triticeae subfamily of grasses. This distinction has even led to legal challenges within the European Union, as several EU countries fight over the proper use of the term"vodka."
Up until the fall of the Soviet Union and the political reforms that followed, all vodka in Poland was produced by a state-run monopoly called Polmos, an acronym for "Polski Monopol Spirytusowy," or "Polish Spirit Monopoly." In 1990, Polmos was divided into several independant companies, most of which were privatized, with a hand full remaining under state ownership.
10 of the Best Polish Vodkas
There may be no other place on earth that has as many varieties and brands of vodka to choose from. Although there are literally hundreds of brands of Polish vodka, only a fraction are available within the United States. In recent years, the Polish producers Belvedere and Chopin have given stalwarts such as Stolichnaya, Smirnoff, Finlandia, Absolut and Grey Goose a run for their money. So which Polish vodka is the best? Here is a short list of some of the most notable premium vodkas.
Best Premium 'Luxury' Polish Vodkas (Wódki Czyste)
1. Pan Tadeusz
Best Flavored Polish Vodkas (Wódki Wytrawna)
2. Debowa Polska Oak Tree Vodka
3. Imbirowa Wódka
4. Klosówka Wódka
Polish 'Special Occasion' Vodkas
Within poland, vodkas are judged each year by the Wielkopolska Chamber of Handicraft, and Debowa Polska Oak Tree Vodka has been constantly awarded the top Dobre bo Polskie, or "Good because Polish" award.
Serving Polish Vodka
Although the preferred serving temperature for the wester palate is strait from the freezer, in Poland, vodka is consumed at room temperature, or with a slight chill. Polish vodka averages around 40% alcohol, so it can be stored in the freezer without expansion.
Selection of Flavored Polish Vodkas and Flavored Liqueurs
No traditional Polish meal would be complete without a liberal helping of traditional Polish vodka. When sharing vodka with friends in Poland, the traditional Polish toast is "nostrovia," or "good health," "to your health."
In addition to clear spirits such as vodka, there is a myriad of flavored liqueurs of varying potency. There are Polish honey liqueurs such as Old Krupnik (38% alcohol), which is traditional sweet vodka that dates back to ancient times.
For something really different, try a Polish liquor called Sliwowica, (pronounced 'shlee-vo-vee-tsah') which is made from plums and plum brandy, and can be as strong as 150 proof (70%) or more! Sliwowica is so strong it is considered to be medicinal by many Poles, supposedly curing a host of respiratory ailments and malities.
Alcoholism in Poland
The consumption of alcoholic beverages has been an integral part of Polish social tradition, and according to the U.S. Library of Congress' Federal Research Division, per capita consumption in Poland, Russia and other Slavik countries is well above the European average. This trend began during the communist era, and steadily increased through the 1980s. In 1980 the average male Pole over sixteen years of age consumed the equivalent of 16.6 liters of pure alcohol per year (see: countrystudies.us).
Although consumption remains higher that the EU average, it is on a downward trajectory. According to a 2004 report in Medycyna Ogólna (B. Skretowicz and J. Schabowski) the mean consumption of alcohol beverages per capita was about 7 litres of 100% alcohol during the period between 1998-2000, with adults between the ages of 40 to 49 consume the greatest amount. In an effort to combat alcoholism, the Polish government has banned the advertising of hard liquor, and the Polish Ministry of Health is now seeking to limit the advertising of beer as well.
The consumption of vodka is an important part of the Polish culture, and an integral part of the "Polish experience." In moderation, and absent the presence of a motor vehicle, it is an essential part of any traditional Polish meal, but remember to always drink responsibly, and never mix drinking and driving! See: madd.org
On To: Traditional Polish Cuisine