A Drunk’s Brief History of Polish Vodka
“Just drink it,” my friend Rafal said, “it’s just water.”
I took a sip from the water bottle and immediately spit it out.
“Dude that’s not water, it’s vodka!” I exclaimed.
“Well, technically, vodka does mean ‘small water’, so I wasn’t lying”, he quipped.
Almost everyone who drinks vodka has a love-hate relationship with it; most of us will say we hate how much we love it. Vodka is responsible for a lot of Polish national pride, a good chunk of Poland’s export economy, and that annoying kid that lives down the street whose parents hate each other.
But there’s more to love about vodka outside of the imaginary superpowers it gives you at night and the not-so-imaginary hangover you get from it in the morning. It has a variety of uses, healing properties, and a history as mysterious as the Illuminati and the ageless wonders of Robert Lewandowski’s hair.
If you’re ever in Warsaw and want to get more acquainted with the history of the Polish national beverage, you can take a Vodka Tasting Tour with some locals and wet your beak a little, so to say. Here are some things you may not know about vodka.
The Vodka Wars
It seems like a fairly harmless question: where does vodka come from?
Potatoes or grains, obviously!
But this question took on a far more serious meaning in the 1970’s when Poland and Russia got into heated debates as to the whereabouts of its origins. During the Soviet occupation of Poland, Russia tried to diminish the Poles’ national pride with propaganda that implied vodka had always been a Russian invention. This had global implications for many people that didn’t know vodka’s history and simply attributed its creation to Russia.
Russia even appointed one of its own historians, William Pokhlyobkin, to write a book on vodka’s history to settle the matter. Totally fair right?
Like letting Gollum decide who got to be the ring-bearer in LOTR.
However, many points of Pokhlyobkin’s were criticized and discredited. The first documented reportings of vodka or “gorzałka” can be found in Polish historical texts dating back to 1405. It wasn’t until the 18th century that vodka was mentioned in any Russian historical documents.
Today, the debate still rages on depending on where you are in the world. If you hear anyone simply passing it off as a Russian invention, you can share this little tidbit to stoke the fires a bit.
The Vodka Belt
Europe’s Vodka Belt countries consist of Poland, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. They are known as such for being the biggest makers and consumers of vodka in Europe. Combined they produce just over 70% of Europe’s vodka.
The biggest makers and consumers of vodka in Europe
Recently there has been a beer-revolution across Europe, with many government officials and parties arguing that a switch to beer from vodka within social drinking has had a positive effect on alcohol-related diseases and deaths. In Poland, there was even a Polish Beer-Lovers’ Party (PPPP), which started as a satirical political party in 1991, but actually won 16 seats in Poland’s lower Parliament. Once they gained traction they eventually dropped their name and became more serious as the Polish Economic Party, which dissolved only a few years later.
While a few other countries have followed suit in an effort to push for more social reforms about the consumption of vodka, the beverage still remains a stalwart beacon of national pride for many of these countries.
Vodka’s Healing Powers
Polish President Kwasniewski also likes vodka
Anyone who’s had a bad hangover will have heard of the old hair-of-the-dog approach. Yeah, vodka can cure your hangover for a little white, like eating from the hand that bit you. But it also has a few other ways it can help.
Antifreeze Poisoning: if your dog just happens to drink that antifreeze you have lying around, give it some vodka and it’ll be “playing” dead in no time instead of doing it literally. You can also use it on people for the same reason.
Hair and Skin: vodka can help cleanse your pores and scalp by destroying toxins. I would suggest using it on your body before you shower and not after, otherwise, you’ll soon smell like the neighborhood alcoholic.
Reducing Fevers: rubbing vodka on your body when you have a fever can help reduce the body’s temperature when it evaporates as it has a cooling effect. Be careful though where you place it and how much you put on, as it can be absorbed by the skin in large amounts or inhaled if placed too close to your nose or mouth. Use in moderation.
Boring Relatives: Use it on them or yourself to slow the pain of awkward or boring family engagements. If at any point your babcia is still pulling your cheek, up both of your doses.
Common Myths About Vodka
Distillation: If you have that rich friend who likes to break out the good bottle for a special occasion, then you’ve probably heard them tell you how great it is because it’s been distilled a thousand times.
It doesn’t matter so much how many times vodka is distilled so much as the ingredients used to make it. If a vodka has been distilled a ton of times, it just means it was used with crappy materials in the first place.
Temperature: People will often tell you to keep vodka in the freezer so that you don’t taste or smell the components that make you want to gag. That’s all fine-and-dandy, but vodkas that are made properly and with good ingredients can be drunk at room temperature.
Putting any liquor in the freezer will make it go down smoother, but it will also extinguish much of the taste. So if you don’t like the taste of vodka at all then go ahead and prepare all your bottles for hibernation.
Ingredients: A second type of Vodka War erupted within the EU parliament in 2006 about what ingredients can be used to make real vodka. Poland, along with several other Vodka Belt countries argued that real vodka can only come from cereals or potatoes. This argument was designed so that other types of liquor, such as France’s Ciroc which was made using grapes, couldn’t pass off their products as legitimate vodka.
Poland and other Vodka Belt countries eventually lost the argument, and a compromise was reached where vodka could be still considered vodka as long as it assumed a “vodka produced from…..” on the label stating which ingredients were used. Thus you can now have certain types of “vodka” made from non-traditional ingredients.
Vodka has been and will be a big source of national pride in Poland. If you’re visiting the country as a foreigner, it’s one of the best ways to ingratiate yourself with people at parties, weddings, or other social situations. So drink up and be merry!