Touring Poland, One Vodka at a Time

Poland is steeped in cultural history, and vodka is as much a part of the tapestry as World War II. From Gdansk to Warsaw, our writer sips her way through a tour of one of Poland's most valued commodities.
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Gdansk, Old Town, Poland
THE HOUSES THAT VOKDA BUILT: The colorful, medieval buildings of Gdansk, Poland  (Glen Allison/Photodisc/Getty)
Access and Resource
How to get here, where to stay, what to eat, and what to do (when you're not tasting vodka). Get all the info on our Access and Resources page.

There are about 12 shot glasses in front of me—all in various stages of fullness—and I'm not sure how many the waitress has already taken away. Sitting in a wood-paneled dining room within a vodka museum, I want to sample all of the products here in Lancut, home to the oldest distillery in Poland. And I have to try to keep a clear head.

While it's not known where exactly vodka was invented, any Pole will tell you this country produces the best in the world. And for many, there is only one way to drink it: cold, straight, and in one gulp. The secret, one drinking companion tells me, is in the breathing. Inhale, take the shot, and then exhale to release the burning.

Now, he says, all I need to do is practice.

Since arriving, I've had plenty of such opportunities. While drinking beer is popular and wine consumption is gaining ground, vodka is the backbone of Poland's prominent drinking culture. Even though alcohol advertising is banned in the country, vodka is everywhere. At restaurants, the place settings often include a shot glass. At a club, you just grab a bucket of ice, a bottle of vodka, and glasses from the bar. And in Warsaw, a new trend—drinking American cocktails—has given vodka a contemporary facelift.

But in my first night in Gdansk, a northern city on the Baltic Coast, it's clear that the trend hasn't reached this hotel bar. Our bartender Mariusz had never heard of a dirty martini. He looked genuinely puzzled that anyone would want to drink such a concoction, and the first round revealed why. He added about a half cup of olive juice to a shot of vodka, prompting a friend to ask, "How do you say 'filthy' in Polish?"

After a few filthy martinis, Gdansk's Motlawa River looks even more romantic. The city's history stretches back more than 1,000 years, but its golden era started in the Middle Ages, when it served as a port, trading grain and timber between Poland and the rest of Europe. The first shots of World War II were fired in Gdansk, and the city, occupied by Germany, was almost totally destroyed during the war. The colorful medieval buildings along the narrow, winding cobblestone streets have since been meticulously rebuilt.

Published: 3 Oct 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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