The best vodka in town

Last updated 22:48 22/09/2008
NA ZDROWIE: Dumplings at Chlopskie Jadlo.

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Some philistines will tell you all vodka tastes the same. But this is simply not true. All vodkas may taste similar but the connoisseur knows there are subtle differences.

For instance, vodka from the Scandinavian regions, say Absolut or Finlandia, generally has a cleaner taste than others; it is supposedly so pure Swedish ambulance drivers use it for first aid when they run out of disinfectant.

Vodka from Russia is rough and dirty, the sort of shot that makes hairs grow on your chest.

And Poland? Well, aside from competing with the Russians to be considered the birthplace of vodka, the country has a reputation for making some of the nicest-flavoured vodkas in the world.

All of this is why, when my would-be travelling companion suggested a weekend in Warsaw, I didn't immediately think: historic architecture on wide, cobbled streets, good-looking locals with high Slavic cheekbones or former Eastern bloc interests - even though it is true that Warsaw has all of these and more.

Instead, I thought, "Awesome, I am going to drink the best Polish vodka I can find."

On arriving in Warsaw, I worry every Polish person I meet by immediately asking them where I can find the best vodka and where I can go on one of these vodka tours I have heard about.

Vodka has played an integral part in Polish culture for centuries. It first appeared in this region of Europe in the ninth century, when a 100 per cent pure, clear alcohol arrived with either Arabian traders or Italian monks.

However, rather than being mixed into delicious rustic cocktails, this early vodka was used variously as an antiseptic, an anaesthetic, to clean silverware and jewellery, and cure foot odour.

It wasn't until the end of the 14th century that distillation processes we would recognise today arrived.

And this is where the Poles claim that they made vodka earlier than the Russians - a court record from 1405 mentions the spirit; it wasn't mentioned by name in Russian documents until 1751.

"Vodka is a very important part of our national puzzle," explains a Polish artist I meet.

"The nobles once paid the peasants for their work in vodka and at one time soldiers were guaranteed one litre of vodka per day. But of course," he notes, "this is not very good for our civilisation."

Vodka is not exactly a luxury product in Poland today - the folks I was questioning did not see vodka in the same exalted way I did. Many of them preferred scotch, tequila or beer.

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I also find out more about the vodka tours I have heard about. It turns out these are not exactly meant for serious vodka lovers; they are apparently best for British drunks here on a buck's weekend. Hence the traces of disdain I detect in my Polish hosts' voices.

Still, despite all of these reactions and the absence of a serious vodka tour, I am not deterred. I still want to find, and taste, the best Polish vodka, and what better place to start than at dinner at Chlopskie Jadlo.
It's a Polish chain popular with visitors and locals and this particular outlet is decorated with what appears to be old-fashioned farming equipment. The waitresses wear folk costumes.

It's kitsch but the food is good, genuinely Polish, hugely filling and the waitress is more than happy to advise us on vodka.

I'm told she is particularly friendly because we are drinking our vodka Polish-style, that is, neat and in one gulp.

We try krupnik, a honey vodka drunk for breakfast in the mountains, as well as subrezty, a sour-sweet vodka, a cherry flavoured vodka and Siwucha, a potato vodka.

Our table agrees: the potato vodka is best. The friendly waitress says Siwucha is a little like a Polish moonshine known as bimber.

Despite its illegality, everyone makes it or knows someone who makes it. Late last century, at the time of what might best be described as prohibition imposed by the Russian government, many Polish families produced their own vodka.

Later that same night, discussing vodka with the handsome bartender with appropriately high Slavic cheekbones at one tiny, well-hidden watering hole, I find out that I might be able to buy some bimber at the Jarmark Europa market in the Dziesieciolecia Stadium.

This used to be one of Europe's biggest outdoor markets, with more than 5000 stallholders. It has since been reduced in size as the stadium will be renovated for the 2012 European Cup.

The next day I drag my travelling companion away from the tourist ghetto and across the Vistula River in a tram.

The market is a shanty town of narrow, rubbish-strewn alleys covered with corrugated iron and canvas sheets.

African men roam about bearing plastic shoes, which they thrust in potential buyers' faces, Vietnamese immigrants hawk cheap cotton frocks and floral-sprigged knickers, Polish farmers sell sausage and mysterious jars from the back of battered vans.

The jars look suspiciously like bimber but for whatever reason - we might have arrived too late, we look too respectable or too foreign, it might be the language barrier or the fact that we are too timid to ask anyone - we don't find any bimber for sale.

Apparently, this is not such a bad thing. Bimber is great if you want to go blind, another of my impromptu Polish vodka advisers warns me much later. "You don't know what you are getting with bimber; it's the methanol. It can kill you, you know."

Mildly disappointed, I decide simply to buy some souvenir vodka on the way back to central Warsaw. But at the liquor store, when I carefully interrogate yet another Pole about illegal liquor, he tells me there is actually a legal bimber.

Nalewka Staropolska started off as a homemade fruit-flavoured vodka.

Now it is a small boutique company that gets its raw materials from local orchards and does everything by hand, completely chemical-free and according to its own recipes.

Excited by the pretty labels and even though these are not strictly vodkas - nalewki means fruit liqueur - I buy the smoked plum and cherry variety, which really does taste mellow and smoky and fruity all at the same time, as well as something called Four Seasons, which apparently involves the subtle aroma of sunlit fir woods of the Kampinos Forest.

Then just a little further down the road we find the Konser vodka factory.

Unfortunately for my vodka treasure hunt, the factory has been closed for several years now and is being turned into something else altogether.

The district in which it is located, Praga, was once Warsaw's ghetto. However, as with so many urban ghettos before it, the neighbourhood is now being reclaimed by local artists, musicians and creatives attracted by the cheap rents, the incredible buildings and atmosphere.

Inside a small office on the vodka factory site, where the shelves are lined with empty vodka bottles of all shapes and sizes, sits Janusz Owsiany.

This dapper, white-haired Pole is an artist who has had a lot to do with the local and international vodka industry.

He has designed 82 bottles for various vodka brands, including the award-winning, glass-etched Belvedere vodka.

As a result of his impeccable connections within the vodka industry, the Polish Ministry of Culture and the Polish art world, he is now in charge of the Monopol Warszawski Association, a collective that is turning the old vodka factory into a cultural centre.

As Owsiany expounds on vodka, vodka bottles and the fascinating history of the factory, the arty revival in the Praga district and the difficulties of Polish arts funding, he also gives a short tour of the various galleries, poster-lined corridors, studio spaces and a small, independent theatre.

I've learnt some strange Polish names for alcohol and discovered my fair share of fine liquors on this self-devised vodka tour but I am still not sure I've actually tasted the best.

But perhaps I've tasted something even better: the real Warsaw.

Over the past few days I have become strangely fond of these streets - decorated with baskets of flowers and dumpling shops, peopled by peddlers selling cherries by the box and old ladies tending small, colourful Catholic shrines - and I'm hoping to come back and drink more vodka soon.

FAST FACTS

Eating there

Be warned. The search for the perfect pierogi (Polish dumpling) could become as much of an obsession as the hunt for the best vodka. A great selection, plus other Polish food, is available at Pierogarnia, 28/30 Bednarska Street.

Staying there

The folks at the pleasant and clean Helvetia Hostel speak English and are extremely friendly. Choose from nicely decorated doubles with bathrooms for about 210 zloty or bunk rooms for about 50 zloty a bed. See www.hostel-helvetia.pl.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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