“Polish vodka” is a well-known sentence all around the world. Heck, even Bruce Willis himself advertised Polish vodka “Sobieski” some time ago. Although vodka is Poland’s one of the most popular export commodity, Polish alcohols are much more. Especially nowadays, when the local brewing, winemaking, liqueur and cider production industries it thriving. If you are spirits amateur and passionate of good liquor, I’m inviting you for a tour throughout the universe of Polish alcohols. I promise you won’t be disappointed!
During the communist period, Poland was not famous for its beer production. Yes, it was produced in vast quantities, but of poor quality. Fortunately, those times are gone, and now there is a real revival of the Polish brewing industry. Beer used to be the most popular alcohol in Poland. Already medieval chroniclers wrote that Poland is a country that instead of wine uses beer, which it makes from rye, wheat, barley or spelt. For most of the modern era, beer was the primary alcohol. Until the 17th century, beer was made mainly from corn and then from barley. Beer was finally replaced by vodka. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that breweries on Polish soil successfully competed with foreigners. Unfortunately, about half of them survived the First World War.
For several years now, the interest in beers brewed in small local breweries has been growing: light, unpasteurized, dark, honey beers, porters, stouts, kids, wheat beers and flavoured beers. Apart from the best-known ones, dozens of small breweries operate. Beers from small breweries are available not only in bars and restaurants but also in grocery stores and online shops.
For vines were cultivated in Poland already in the Middle Ages, first near monasteries. In the 16th century, when beer and vodka became more popular, wine production began to disappear. Long and numerous wars in the seventeenth century destroyed the winemaking of the Republic of Poland. In the eighteenth century, experimentation with the cultivation of vines began again on Polish soil. In the 19th century, the economic crisis after the January Uprising, severe winters and harsh climate forced landowners to focus on other types of production. And in the last century, the revival of Polish winemaking was interrupted by the Second World War. After 1945 and the change of borders, the communist authorities decided to continue the production of wine, but the nationalized winemaking turned out to be an economic disaster.
Today, we can experience a real revival of Polish winemaking. Drinking wine is now fashionable, and its consumption is growing steadily. It is estimated that the area of Polish vineyards is about 1000 hectares. The products of the best vineyards are no longer an impossible commodity to obtain. Excellent wines can be bought in specialist wine shops, better restaurants and on the Internet.
More and more often, renowned wine events are also held. You can not only taste local wines but also talk to winemakers and oenologists. The city of Zielona Góra invites you to the Vintage Festival, wine festivals and competitions, and the winemaking itself promote the city authorities. In the region of Podkarpacie are organized tastings of original wines such as “International Wine Days in Jasło”. In turn, the Polish Wine and Wine Institute in Krakow tries to shape Polish wine law and help industry initiatives. For several years now, the Convention of Polish Winemakers has been organized.
Tinctures – a Polish speciality for years – were introduced to Poland probably in the 16th century. They were produced in every noble or bourgeois house. Valuable recipes were passed down from generation to generation, sometimes only in a testamentary legacy. Fortunately, these family recipes have survived to this day, and on their basis, the best tinctures are made.
Homemade Polish nalewka is easy to make, but most often, it is far from being noble. In Poland, tinctures masterpieces are created by several masters, whose products are served in prestigious Polish restaurants. The fruit is harvested on forest clearings, in green crops or in rural orchards. Tinctures ripen even for a few years.
The simplest is probably the classic tinctures: quince, cherry or blackcurrant. They are royal fruits because they have as much sugar as acidity. In the case of the flower, tinctures are very important to collect a specific day of flowering, because without pollen flower does not give a taste. This cannot be converted into a precise recipe for an ideal nalewka, because everything begins with what the fruit gets from nature – sunshine, rain, air temperature.
Cider in Poland used to be called apple cider. The recipes for cider spread in the 19th century, when numerous cookbooks were published. Under communism, cider production, like wine, was ruined by the monopolization and production of low-quality alcohols.
Poland is in a unique situation today. It has vast quantities of its own apples, technical facilities for cider production and qualified staff. In the light of political events in 2014 (Russian embargo on the import of Polish apples), cider may become a turning point for this industry.
Where it is too cold to make wine work, cider has a chance to enter its place. It refreshes, quenches thirst, interacts with food, stimulates conversation and does not deactivate the consumer as quickly as strong alcohol. It can be bought in better restaurants, wine bars, selected shops or via the Internet.
Mead (Miód pitny)
The production of mead (alcohol-based on honey) also has a very long tradition in Poland. In recent years, their production has been growing. Mead is produced as a result of alcoholic fermentation of the wort (honey solution with water). Natural, fruit, spice and herbal and hop honey are produced. Depending on the proportion of ingredients, they can be sweet and are served in desserts and pâtés, yeast-raised cakes or gingerbread. They can also be dried, and then they are suitable for aperitifs or as an accompaniment to fish and meat dishes. Depending on the species, the honey must be aged from a few months to several years.
Some meads won awards at festivals and were appreciated abroad, e.g. at the Salone del Gusto in Turin 2004. In 2010, mead by Michał Saks called Sambuci Flos won in its category the prestigious American competition Mazer Cup International organized in Boulder, Colorado.
Plum brandy (also known as Slivovitz)
On a trip to the south of Poland, you can find the most unique drink – Plum brandy, also known as Slivovitz. Polish Śliwowica is produced by fermentation of plum fruits and distillation. It has a straw colour, characteristic taste and plum aroma. The real plum brandy must be clean and should be distilled only thanks to the alcohol derived from the sugar contained in the fruit. The most popular is “Śliwowica Łącka’ is an intangible national cultural asset, it receives foreign awards, and the municipality of Łącko organizes its annual festival. However, due to EU regulations, it is still produced illegally. There are around 10% of genuine plum brandy producers on the market, the rest sell counterfeit products.
The offer of regional alcohol producers is getting more prosperous and more vibrant. Industry tourism is slowly developing. Amateurs of local beverages can go on a trip along the trail of small breweries, distilleries and mead plants. Sometimes such trips are organized by tourist offices. The excursion can be combined with tasting of alcoholic beverages and topical products, sightseeing of buildings, exploring the secrets of production.