Become a vodka expert at Warsaw's new vodka museum
One of the bottles in the museum store is labeled A luxury version of potatoes, and vodka bottles are exhibited in the foyer from the top to bottom floors. Vodka has been part of Polish culture for over five centuries, and at the Museum of Polish Vodka, you can follow the history of the Polish national drink from its emergence in the late Middle Ages to today.
The museum itself is also part of the history of vodka. It is housed in the old Koneser vodka distillery from the 1880s, where vodkas such as Wyborowa and Luksusowa were distilled up until 2007. Even though these two famous brands are no longer produced here, they are still the strongest Polish vodka brands and that were exported during the Communist era – naturally accompanied by posters of racy females and a more upmarket label than on bottles earmarked for local consumption.
Both Russians and Poles have a close relationship with this hard hitting drink and are equally keen to lay claim to be the originators. However, historic documents suggest that Poland was actually the cradle of vodka, and the Poles are as proud of their beverage as the Scots are of whisky and the French, cognac.
The museum therefore also emphasizes that Polish vodka has been a protected designation of origin product since 2013. As such, you can only call a vodka Polish vodka if it has been distilled in Poland using exclusively Polish ingredients such as rye, barley, wheat, oats or potatoes, with no more than 100g added sugar per liter of pure alcohol and with the addition of only simple, natural flavorants.
However, hundreds of years before the EU granted Polish vodka PDO status, vodka was used as an alcoholic herbal remedy. At the museum you can entertain yourself by mixing your own medicinal cocktail of alcohol, herbs and spices and other doubtful ingredients such as strands of a virgin’s hair and bat wings, on one of the digital displays. The finished drink can be tested on a digital patient – and you get immediate feedback.
In the 18th Century, vodka grew to become a stronger, social party drink, that could be used to keep the four temperaments in balance and be part of the pay of peasants. In 1817, Pictorius, a German merchant, invented a new steam distillation apparatus that made it easier to distill spirits. This development enabled vodka production to really take off.
By the outbreak of the first world war in 1914, there were 2,466 distilleries in Poland. Most were destroyed during the war, but in the interwar years, vodka production became one of the most advanced industries in the country, and vodka was an important export product during the Communist era. Vodka was important, and the museum collection includes a kosher vodka, vodka with gold flake, flavored vodka, colored vodka and vodka for export to Russia.
Even though only a handful of the old distilleries are now back in business in Poland, this doesn’t mean Polish vodka is on the decline. Vodka continues to be a faithful companion at weddings, New Year's Eve, everyday life and parties, and some of the exhibition is dedicated to drinking songs and traditions associated with vodka.
The fact that vodka is famous for clouding your judgment, balance and common sense is another story, that is addressed in an exhibition where distorting beer-goggles demonstrate how your vision is affected by your vodka intake. A bit of an eye opener.
At the end of the tour, you are invited to taste the products in the museum bar. Here you can decide if you prefer vodka made from wheat, rye or potatoes, the most common ingredients, or niche vodkas made from oats or barley. But there is only one way to drink vodka like a Pole; neat, chilled and in 5ml shots.
Published: July 12, 2019