8 Must-Try Regional Alcoholic Drinks from Poland
default, Good Beer Festival in Toruń, photo: Piotr Łampkowski / Forum, center, i_festiwal_dobrego_piwa_forum.jpg
When you think of alcohol in Poland, vodka is probably the first thing that comes to mind. But there are many more treasures hidden in the Polish regions – from ‘Polish whiskey’ to ‘Golden Water’, from 150-proof moonshine to light ciders and beers.
We are famous in Poland for our fruit and herb-based artisanal nalewki and have a long tradition of beer brewing – hundreds of small breweries also opened in the last few years because of the ongoing ‘craft revolution’. Not many people know Poland produces wine as well, especially in the western Lubuskie voivodeship, near the city of Zielona Góra and around the picturesque Kazimierz Dolny in the Lubelskie voivodeship – although it’s not commonly available yet, it’s worth sampling in one of the many gourmet restaurants that have it on offer. Taking all of this under consideration, we’ve pared it down to an exclusive selection that any visitor to Poland cannot miss.
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Duch Puszczy – moonshine from Podlasie
Duch Puszczy – ‘The Spirit of the Forest’ – is the most poetic name for a high-proof spirit also referred to as samogon, bimber or księżycówka (this last name literally translates as ‘moonshine’). It’s a very strong distilled spirit – most traditionally rye-based and around 150-proof – produced in the region of Podlasie in eastern Poland since the 19th century. Being quite a desolate area covered by forests (most importantly, the great Białowieża Forest), it was the perfect place to hide from the law – most moonshine was produced illicitly – and gave easy access to fresh water that apparently makes the spirit more ‘drinkable’.
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These days, some small producers have registered their brands so that we can legally buy moonshine from Podlasie – either in its original form or flavoured with honey or herbs.
Deptucha – Polish Bailey’s from Lubuskie
The tradition of goat-milk nalewki dates back to at least the 18th century. Refreshing fruits like quince or lemons are sweetened with sugar and, after they release their juices, covered with high-proof spirit and goats’ milk which smoothens the taste. Now deptucha (the name derives from the verb deptać – ‘to trample’ – as the fruit isn’t supposed to be cut, but smashed) has become a certified regional product thanks to Kamila and Marcin Wojnowski from Siedlisko. They were already famous for their goat cheeses, but decided that wasn’t enough and revived this truly original product.
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Goldwasser – the luxurious spirit from Gdańsk
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Goldwasser, Pod Łososiem restaurant, Gdańsk, photo: Roman Joche / AG
Translated from German as ‘golden water from Gdańsk’, Danziger Goldwasser is a strong herbal liqueur invented in the 16th century by Dutch immigrant Ambrosius Vermeulen. The original recipe includes twenty herbs and spices such as cardamom, cloves, coriander, thyme, lavender and juniper, but its most distinct feature is gold – small flakes of 23 carat gold to be exact. It’s probably this luxurious ingredient that seduced great admirers of the drink – Tsar Peter the Great and King Louis XIV of France. Although the original Danziger Goldwasser is now produced only in Germany, it remains one of Gdańsk’s symbols and can be sampled in elegant restaurants around the city.
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Traditional & ice cider – apple treasures from Trzebnica
As a country famous for its apples, it would seem pretty logical for Poland to produce loads of cider. For many years this was not the case though: although we produced it in the 19th century, for quite some time it was almost completely absent from Poland’s alcoholic repertoire and it’s only in the last decade that it’s gained some momentum.
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You can buy mass-produced Polish cider in most shops, but the ones really worth trying are produced traditionally, only from fermented apples and without any added sugar. Henryk Nowakowski from Trzebnica in Lower Silesia learned how to make it from his grandfather in Vilnius and now produces both traditional and ice cider. The technique for the latter is similar to how the Canadians make ice wine – yet here it’s the apples that are frozen.
Piwo kozicowe – juniper beer from Mazovia
Made with juniper berries, common hop cones and honey, piwo kozicowe is a low-proof drink typical of the Kurpie ethnic region in Mazovia. In the 19th and early 20th century, it was traditionally served at weddings. After World War II, it almost completely vanished (although research shows it was still remembered fondly in most of northern Poland) other than being rediscovered by tourists tasting it at folk festivals.
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Although commonly called a beer, this is a misnomer since it’s brewed without malt. Originally, the berries – which were common in the region – were the main source of sugar, but later on proportions changed, honey (or sugar) was added, and the juniper became more of a flavouring than the main component.
Miodula – honey vodka from Silesia
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Market stall at the Europa na Widelcu festival, photo: Kornelia Glowacka-Wol / AG
Also known as miodunka, this is a vodka flavoured with honey, produced in the southern regions of Cieszyn Silesia and Żywiecczyzna. The drink rose to fame when the Habsburgs reigned Austria. The basic recipe, which can be found in many books about Silesian cuisine, is simple: one glass of honey, one glass of water and one glass of rectified spirit are mixed together and left to mature. It’s probably the simplest nalewka to make at home, since the only thing you need to do is shake it from time to time. If you feel like experimenting, you can add cinnamon, vanilla, butter or cloves – these are all popular variations. And if you don’t feel like making it at home, you can buy already bottled Old Polish or Presidential Blend Miodula.
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Starka – ‘Polish whiskey’ from Szczecin
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Starka Vodka Factory in Szczecin, photo: Cezary Aszkielowicz / AG
Although it’s sometimes called ‘Polish whiskey’, technically starka is neither a whiskey, nor a bourbon, not even a vodka – though it’s possibly best explained as the only Polish ‘aged vodka’. Rye-based starka was produced in Poland and Lithuania as early as the 15th century. After the first son was born in a family, vodka was put in an oak barrel used previously to store wine (which at that time was usually imported from Hungary) and left to age until the boy’s wedding.
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When the alcohol industry was nationalised after World War II, it was Polmos (the Polish Spirits Monopoly) in Szczecin that took on starka production. Their first batch was bottled in 1947 and sold eight years later. After Polmos went bankrupt, starka disappeared from the market in 2009. It came back seven years later as a product sold exclusively by Szczecińska Fabryka Wódek Starka. Considering the state of the previous owner’s output, likely around a hundred million dollars-worth of booze still awaits in the company’s basement.
Żubrówka – Poland’s finest from Białystok
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European bison in Białowieża Forest, photo: Adam Wajrak / AG
Last but not least, Żubrówka is the best known Polish booze in the world: you can probably buy it wherever you live since it’s available in 80 different countries. Also known as Bison Grass Vodka, it contains a bison grass blade in every bottle. The plant, which smells a bit like fresh hay, is eaten by wisents (European bison) in Poland’s Białowieża Forest. Żubrówka started being produced in the 16th century and quickly became popular. Nowadays, Poles often drink it with apple juice in a drink we call szarlotka (‘apple pie’). Żubrówka is also an inspiration for artists – you may remember it was the name of the fictional Central European republic in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel.
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Written by Natalia Mętrak-Ruda, June 2019