No Stroh's to ya
My grandfather told me about Żubrówka when I was still quite little. He came from a small farming village near Białystok in the Russian partition of Poland. Sweet grass, honey or other tasty additives helped make the early vodkas palatable. Seems the fine art of distillation had not come of age until the 19th century.
In 1978, it was banned in the U.S. because in our food supply the FDA prohibits the chemical coumarin that occurs naturally in bison grass. What’s a little coumarin to ya? Add a little fungus to it and you get Coumadin a life saving blood thinner used by throngs of people susceptible to stroke or heart attack. I bet it would save Medicare a ton of money having patients do shots of this wódka.
The chemical coumarin is found in some pipe tobaccos and naturally in the bison grass, lavender, licorice, strawberries, apricots, cherries, and cinnamon. So, when the FDA banned its importation, I was infuriated.
I was first introduced to Żubrówka a couple years after college when I was working in Detroit and living in a Polish neighborhood. It was not available in Ohio, which operated “State Stores” at the time. From the old timers I learned of the superstition that the grass was thought to be a potion putting “the spring, in an old man’s step” so to speak. Notwithstanding how unscientific the observations of the locals were – they noticed the bulls going to work on the cows after chewing this cud. My guess is the mating season probably occurred about the time the grass matured. But, who am I to rain on a legend?
For nearly 35 years it was something like forbidden fruit. Outlaw status put Żubrówka in a league with absinthe, a liquor long banned in the U.S. because of health concerns about the chemical thujone. But, during the Żubrówka prohibition, bottles were still handily stocked in cupboards of many hardcore Polish homes.
Chemists in Poland spent years struggling to formulize a coumarin-free Żubrówka that tastes like the original. They finally came up with a process and are keeping it as secret as Colonel Sanders’ recipe of 11 herbs and spices. Now, there is a legal version of the wódka, and next is a shot at the American market.
Early test marketing of Żubrówka proved to be a bit challenging. Low-quality knockoffs without coumarin have been available in America for many years, tarnishing Żubrówka's name. The name itself also complicated branding. While the word is less daunting to foreigners than many Polish words - American people can't remember it.
The distiller couldn't accept promoting a name they didn't own and assumed American drinkers would shorten it, the way Russia's Stolichnaya vodka became known as Stoli. So they sat down and listed every contraction of Żubrówka that sounded possible, including Żubu, Żub and Ż.
|Looking for some groovy grass|
To immerse American marketers in Żubrówka before Żu's launch in November, the American marketing team visited Bialowieza Forest, where the wild bison and their herbaceous treat live.
Only a handful of locals know where to find the grass, which sells for about $1,000 a bushel. The grass grows as individual blades that hang to the ground – not as vertical shoots that are easily spotted. They also know when to pick it and how to dry it for maximum flavor.
Taken straight, its pungent herbalness is not for the faint hearted. But, it mixes well with apple cider and cinnamon stick garnish. In Warszawa they call the cocktail Tatanka – I suppose after the term for buffalo used in the film “Dancing with Wolves.”
The duty free store in Martinique and other locales sell a 750ml bottle for five bucks. Talk about mark-ups in liquor. Like cigarettes it’s mostly taxes that keep retail prices high. When it becomes available here, it will likely sell for around $25. The wódka tastes great to me. The bitterness is the taxman meddling with my pursuit of happiness.