“Wherever the Catholic sun does shine, there’s always laughter and good red wine, at least I have found it so, benedicamus Domino.” So wrote Hilaire Belloc and, when one thinks of the Mediterranean Europe, it is hard to disagree. Poland, alas, manages only two out of the three – the climate is wrong for vines and the Romans didn’t quite make it here to establish a tradition of viniculture (these two facts might not be entirely unrelated). But what it lacks in good red wine it certainly more than makes up for in spirits.
Poland is the largest producer of strong spirits in the EU and fourth in the world with an annual production of 320 million litres. The majority of this – most notably vodka – is sold within the EU, with less dramatic sales elsewhere. Andrzej Janota, head of the Association of Polish Spirit Producers, told Polish Radio that the industry is trying to grasp the needs of other consumers and create new trends in the sector. “Not everyone drinks vodka neat, and we understand this.” Indeed they don’t – I for one. A couple of shots with some herring is nice from time to time as is consuming the typical home-made lemon flavoured concoction for diplomatic reasons, but I shouldn’t make a habit of it.
Once more, I am not alone. Although Poland produces large quantities of vodka, domestic consumption has halved since the 1980s, while that of beer has tripled, a trend likely to continue said Janota said, despite every petrol station in Poland seeming to stock enough of the stuff to float the proverbial battleship. And they wonder why drink driving is such a problem. Still, understanding cause and effect is not always the local strong suit: “it wasn’t the vodka, or the excessive speed, or my stupidity, it was the road, officer” (for those actually capable of speaking at the time of arrest, that is).
Be that as it may, for those who appreciate strong Polish spirits, there are some exciting developments. John Borrell, war correspondent turned hotelier and wine importer has created an antidote to the twice, thrice and even five times distilled, double filtered commercial vodka which has become a neutral, largely tasteless, spirit to which is either added something or which is served so cold, as a shot, that the only recognizable element is the alcohol (see here). Named Vestal Vodka (those Romans again) this potato based vodka (which those charming folk at the EU have decreed is for obscure technical reasons based on methanol content cannot be called a vodka) actually has a distinctive flavour at room temperature with different potatoes from different localities producing distinct flavours, allowing the creation of a sort of “appellation controlee” for the vodka.
I had the pleasure to try some last week – two varieties – during a book club dinner with John discussing his book The White Lake, which describes his 20 years in Poland, establishing Kania Lodge (see here) and Wine Express and his battle against local corruption. The vodka (yes, ignore the EU bureaucrats) is very good and actually has a taste rather than a lingering after burn. The book is an enjoyable tale of one man’s struggle armed with a touching faith that good must triumph against ignorance and bad and will strike a familiar chord with anyone who has lived in Poland during the last couple of decades and enlighten those who did not. And, in case you are wondering, John is, alas, not paying me for this. As a real journalist he was kind enough to give me a couple of tips but otherwise his book and his vodka are recommended on their own merits.
As ever, the last word to Shakespeare. Whether vodka is your drink remember: “Good wine is a good familiar creature, if it be well used”.