by Ken Walczak
Just like me, bison grass vodka is the result of the result of many centuries of Polish intelligence, ingenuity, and innovation. Take a neutral rye distillate (good ol’ wódka), bottle it at 80 proof, and infuse it with the flavor of a sweetgrass that grows throughout the Poland/Belarus borderlands. (Local bison known as wisent, or żubr, are especially fond of the grass. Żubr + wódka = Żubrówka.)
The result is a pleasantly herbaceous, slightly sweet, pale yellow-green spirit. Once upon a time, Polish royalty reached for Żubrówka at their hunting lodges, as an easy-sipping way to take the edge off a long day of wisent hunting. Nowadays, Żubrówka livens up the pub crawls based out of Poland’s Youth Hostels for American Sophomores Drinking on the Cheap.
Żubrówka can be a source of great frustration for drinkers unfortunate enough to find themselves within the borders of the United States. For one thing, stateside drinkers lack Poland’s fetching Żubrówka welcoming committee. For another, Żubrówka has been awfully hard for Americans to find, a frequent casualty of changing importers and the fickle tastes of regulators who make the Approved Lists for state liquor boards.
Worse still, when one does track down a bottle of Żubrówka, it can be hard to know what’s really in it. Is your bison grass vodka naturally colored, or tinted with FD&C Yellow No. 5? Is it the real, traditional stuff, or a bastardized version stripped of its blood-thinning coumarin to appease the meddling FDA, who fears that real bison grass is dangerous when consumed in appropriately Polish quantities (notwithstanding the anecdotal evidence from centuries of consumption by actual Poles)? And which brand is best? The Żubrówka efficiently named “Żubrówka,”? Upstart challenger Bak’s?
I leave the coumarin question for a future piece, thanks to several of the dreaded “calls not returned at press time” by Żubrówka importers. Meanwhile, I evaluated the relative merits of two spirits: the aforementioned Żubrówka brand Żubrówka and Bak’s Żubrówka. My bottle of the former is Canadian; the latter I bought from a major chain liquor store here in San Francisco (whose name I will not divulge – nor will I endorse their fine selection, fair prices, and helpful service – without first receiving the proper promotional consideration. I’m just ethical like that.) I tried to learn something about national distribution for each brand, but again: calls not returned at press time. Let’s assume for now that both Bak’s Żubrówka and Żubrówka Żubrówka are available in your area, and similarly priced. Which Żubrówka should you buy?
I convened a tasting panel of six experts (me, my wife, and four friends) for my inaugural BOOZE DEATHMATCH!™. The panel sampled each brand of Żubrówka, side-by-side and blind (except for me, who poured the drinks). The panel sampled each brand neat, then each brand chilled (i.e., shaken with ice and served up), and finally each brand as a szarlotka (i.e., mixed with pressed apple juice).
Here’s what we found:
The whole panel enjoyed the vanilla notes prevalent in neat Żubrówka. Panelist Kerry added that it was like “a mouthful of herbs,” but in a good way: “I love this.” David enjoyed cinnamon and cream notes, and remarked that the vodka “tastes like Horchata.”
Żubrówka chilled was also a resounding success. Panelists, especially Adrienne, found that the temperature change and dilution brought out honey flavors, which matched the vanilla and herb notes well. Kerry, who slightly preferred the neat Żubrówka (for its “cinnamon/cloviness”) wondered if chilling might have brought out “a little anise flavor.”
Panelist Tim praised the extra “kick” (not alcoholic burn, but the tartness of fresh apple flavors) in a Żubrówka szarlotka. The rest of the panel agreed. Tim even dubbed the Żubrówka szarlotka the “best [drink] so far.” Kerry: “Now we’re getting into Dangerousland. You could easily have two pints of this, and be like: ‘I love apple juice!’ And then you can’t walk.”
Neat Bak’s scored noticeably lower with the tasters. I noted additional flowery notes in the spirit’s nose, and panelists David and Emily noted coconut flavors, in addition to the expected vanilla, upon tasting. But mostly the panel thought Bak’s was too sweet. I suggested that Bak’s reminded my of Almond Joy candy bars. In keeping with the season, Emily suggested that Bak’s was more like “the Halloween candy version” of Żubrówka.
Adrienne damned chilled Bak’s with faint praise, summing up the panel’s reactions as follows: “We like it better chilled [than neat] … that we can say.” Others acknowledged the “lack of burn” from the more diluted Bak’s, but no panelist preferred the flavor of Bak’sto Żubrówka (chilled or neat).
The panel was also unimpressed by Bak’s in a szarlotka: remarks included: “much sweeter,” and “sickeningly sweet.” Emily: “It’s like stripper apple juice.”
Żubrówka was the overall DEATHMATCH! winner, by a wide margin. In every preparation, tasters praised Żubrówka’s sophistication, smoothness, and depth of flavor. By comparison, Bak’s seemed sweet, shallow, and artificial. If you’re looking for all-around quality in your Żubrówka, Żubrówka is probably the Żubrówka for you. (Preferably the Canadian kind – MAYBE. STAY TUNED.) Whereas, if you ever find yourself in the aforementioned youth hostel pub crawl, accompanied by the aforementioned easily-impressed sophomores, you might do well to choose Bak’s.