How to experience Poland’s national drink

Note from 10Best: This tour took place prior to the 2020 pandemic. Check with individual companies for the most up-to-date information.

“So, the family patriarch or event host makes a toast while everyone stands with their vodka shots in hand, waiting for him to finish,” explains Mateusz Kołakowski, a tour guide for the Krakow arm of Eat Polska food and vodka tours.

He goes on to explain that all festivity attendees listen as the host rambles on, eager for him to proclaim the magic words, “Na zdrowie.” The Polish equivalent of “Cheers!” gets the party started, indicating that it’s time to imbibe. For each subsequent shot, there’s no need to listen to another speech – a simple “Na zdrowie” suffices.

We participants in Eat Polska’s vodka tour take that as our cue to get into the Polish spirit, declaring a “Na zdrowie” of our own, then clanking our glasses together to put back our first vodka of the evening, Wyborowa, a pure white rye vodka.

Vodka ready to taste — Photo courtesy of Jaclyn DeGiorgio

Yet not all vodka is meant to be swallowed in a single gulp. We’re gathered around a table in the cozy, wood-paneled dining room of an old-school, traditional Polish restaurant near Krakow’s main square, and gaze at our next elixir: Żołądkowa Gorzka, a pale gold, herbal-infused vodka.

We approach it like wine, sensing aromas of nutmeg and other spices that, for me, conjure up the feeling of Christmastime. Żołądkowa Gorzka is meant to be sipped and savored slowly, and as we nurse ours, we fuel up on zakąski, traditional Polish snack-sized dishes, consisting of herring with sour cream and onions as well as white sausage in horseradish sauce.

White sausage and horseradish sauceWhite sausage and horseradish sauce — Photo courtesy of Jaclyn DeGiorgio

While we eat, Mateusz explains how vodka is Poland’s national drink – you dare not refuse anyone who offers you a glass in their home, unless, of course, you’re driving, pregnant or sober. In fact, pleading teetotaler isn’t considered a valid enough excuse.

The national drink of Poland holds the same title in Russia as the countries’ histories overlap, rendering vodka’s point of origin a perpetual topic of debate. Though a case can be made in Poland’s favor, no one knows for sure exactly where it originated.

Various nalewki on displayVarious nalewki on display — Photo courtesy of Jaclyn DeGiorgio

The next stop brings us to an eclectic shop that could easily pass for the potions lab at Hogwarts, with backlit glass orbs containing nalewki (infused vodka) in myriad jewel tones. Ranging from elderberry flower to rose to raspberry to amaretto to an orange and coffee combo, I never imagined vodka could have so many colorful, flavorful iterations.

Similar to the bitter liqueurs in my adopted country of Italy, nalewki, which became popular in the 16th century, originally had medicinal purposes and served as a panacea for various ailments and afflictions. They eventually went mainstream and by the 20th century, nearly every household kept a homemade batch on hand to serve guests.

Mateusz patiently leads us through a nalewki blind-tasting, prompting us to guess the flavors of two – which I won’t spoil here for any potential future vodka tour participants.

Mystery nalewkiMystery nalewki — Photo courtesy of Jaclyn DeGiorgio

Our third destination is a lively convivial tavern with German beer hall vibes specializing in Lemkos cuisine, food typical of Nomadic people from a region close to the Ukrainian border. Here, we sample J.A. Baczewski, a Polish/Austrian potato vodka with a fascinating backstory.

After having been produced in Krakow for centuries, the distillery was leveled during World War II. An Austrian company eventually acquired the brand, which moved the vodka’s principal place of business to Vienna.

We also sip dzięgielówka (garden angelica or wild celery vodka). Angelica grows mainly in the Carpathian Mountains, and over the centuries, angelica-infused vodka was used as a cure for digestive problems. The 19th-century Polish poet Władysław Syrokomla mentions the vodka being used for this purpose in “Do Kalafonii,” one of his poems.

To keep ourselves sated, we top brown bread with a punchy lardo crackling spread and dig into bigos, or hunters’ stew, a hearty, comforting hodgepodge of mushrooms, beef and fermented sauerkraut.

Bigos, or hunter's stewBigos, or hunter’s stew — Photo courtesy of Jaclyn DeGiorgio

Our last stop is a chic speakeasy, located on the second floor of a nondescript building near Krakow’s historic center. Here, Mateusz introduces us to the most intriguing vodka of the evening, Żubrówka, or bison grass vodka. We formally taste the vodka first, and this (unsurprisingly) earthy potion emits traces of vanilla, almond and cinnamon. Each bottle is packaged with a glass blade plucked from Poland’s Białowieża Forest.

In the U.S., the vodka is sold sans grass blade as it contains coumarin, a chemical that thins the blood, therefore bison grass vodka in its purest form is prohibited stateside. We proclaim our final “Na Zdrowie” and clink our bison grass vodka-based cocktails as Mateusz presents us with official Vodka Inspector certificates.

Overall, the tour offered an atypical lens for a memorable glimpse of Poland’s culture and history. The most gratifying part? Learning to drink vodka, Polish-style. Locals obviously have more experience, as well as a higher tolerance – yet the food pairings and quality of the vodka count for something. I put back more vodka on this tour then I have in the last ten years, and I didn’t even feel a tad bit tipsy.

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