The drinking culture of Eastern Europe centers on vodka, to be sure. But when speaking of Poland in particular, you might think the conversation would stop at potato vodka. Yet another much more exotic vodka exists in Poland.
Żubrówka – or Bison Grass vodka – is a highly herbal alternative to ordinary potato or traditional grain-based vodkas exported from Poland and Russia; however, it’s largely unknown here in the U.S.
Considering the resurgent popularity of high-end vodkas, why would this particular vodka be so unfamiliar? The answer lies with coumarin, a chemical compound found in many plants and traditionally used in perfumes and synthetic pharmaceuticals – and a certain bison grass-flavored vodka. The FDA prohibited coumarin as a food and drink additive in 1954; żubrówka specifically was banned from being imported into the U.S. by the ATF in the late 1970s.
Unlike absinthe – another prohibited European spirit – żubrówka carried no mysteries of hallucinogenic properties and green fairies. Not until vodka’s newfound popularity in the late 1990s was żubrówka manufactured for the U.S. market, in the form of a coumarin-free version.
I learned of it from a colleague who lived in Poland and learned to drink bison grass vodka like the locals do, mixed with apple juice. After a little searching, I was able to find a bottle of the yellow tinted żubrówka at a local specialty liquor store. The vodka, which the bottle claims is “full of authentic flavor, rich in vitality,” tastes extremely earthy, with a grass-like flavor unlike the peaty flavor associated with Scottish whiskeys. When mixed with much apple juice (I’d recommend a five-to-one ratio) the cocktail – known as a “Tatanka” in Poland – is simultaneously fruity and herbal, sweet and grassy. Żubrówka can also be mixed with ginger ale, but Poles use only apple juice, nothing else.
Served over ice or mixed as a cocktail, żubrówka is certainly not an everyday drink; its unique flavor is an acquired taste, likely to be enjoyed only by the most adventurous drinkers. An excuse, perhaps, to enjoy a meal at an authentic Polish (or even Russian) restaurant, where you can enjoy żubrówka your with potatoes, pierogies, and a generous helping of sour cream.