Name Your Poison: How a Banned Polish Vodka Buffaloed Its Way Into the U.S.
on 19/01/11 at 5:31 pmSpirits
BIALYSTOK, Poland—Distillers here have the American spirit—vodka from where the buffalo roam. But this cocktail has a twist: It’s banned in the U.S.
Now, after nearly a decade of work on two continents to formulate and brand a legal version of the alcohol, its producers are taking a shot at the American market. The booze, called Żubrówka, is unusual because it is flavored with a rare, pungent wild grass enjoyed by European bison. Each bottle has a blade of the grass in it for the drinker to admire.
Bison grass grows in one of Europe’s most remote and pristine corners, in and around an ancient forest that straddles the border with Belarus. The vast primeval woods, protected by a special United Nations designation, are home to one of Europe’s last herds of bison, which are cousins of the American buffalo.
Żubrówka has been a Polish national drink for centuries and a cult favorite internationally for decades. But in the U.S., it’s taboo because the Food and Drug Administration prohibits a potentially toxic chemical that occurs naturally in bison grass, coumarin. Until recently, only a few black-market bottles were available, mainly in the Polish neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Chicago.
“It was something like forbidden fruit,” says Katarzyna Plonska, export marketing manager in Warsaw for Central European Distribution Corp. CEDC, a U.S.-based alcohol producer, owns the sole Polish distiller allowed to use the Żubrówka name, Polmos Bialystok.