It’s not about the vodka. Part III: Traditions vs. Trends

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Vodka hacking is on the rise. However, by definition and especially tradition, Polish vodka is only supposed to be made from cereals or potatoes. The first documents of Polish vodka making go back to the 1400s, creating centuries of expectations about what vodka should taste like and best practices for how it should be made. Across the vodka belt (spans countries like Poland, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway) there are strict and strong standards for vodka quality that produce exceptional vodkas in terms of taste and quality.

There are economic motivations to keep vodka old school. According to Andrzej Szumowski, the president of the Polish Vodka Association, ‘traditional recipes based on potatoes and cereals grown in Poland could soon turn Polish vodka into a brand as easily recognizable as Scotch whisky and French cognac’. A year ago, there was a change in the spirit product law to define Polish vodka as vodka produced exclusively in Poland and from potatoes or traditional cereals like rye, wheat, barley, or oats.

Yet there’s a tradition of ‘hacking vodka’ that’s as old as the oldest fruit orchards on the endless, fertile farmable land that you find across Poland. Before the Communists centralized spirit making, these farms had their own distilleries. For centuries, Polish farmers would infuse spirits with fruits like lemons, grapefruit, plums, and cherries to create Nalewki. My aunt Jolcza prides herself on her cytrynówka — a delicious vodka/lemon infusion that tastes better than a Lemon Drop.

This citizen-based vodka hacking tradition has evolved and brought the emergence of small-batch, single-distilled vodkas like Mlody Ziemniak and Vestal Vodka, where distillers talk about vintage and terroir. Terms normally used by winemakers. These latest hacks create nuanced taste profiles like whisky or tequila that can even change from sip to sip vs. the traditional vodkas that prided themselves on delivering consistently odorless and tasteless vodkas.

What’s old in vodka is new. Pablo Picasso famously said ‘In the 20th century there were three extraordinary inventions: cubism, blues, and Polish vodka’. Today, vodka making continues to evolve with innovations in ingredients, infusions, and processes. What’s next?


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