Touring Poland, One Vodka at a Time - Page 2

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Motlawa River, Gdansk, Poland
RIVER OF THE AGES: Gdansk's Motlawa River, Poland  (Glen Allison/Photographer's Choice/Getty)

Pod Lososiem, Gdansk's oldest restaurant and at one point liquor producer, opened in 1598 and serves traditional food like tiny yellow mushrooms and crayfish in a rich cream sauce, soup in hollowed-out bread bowls, and platters of roasted duck alongside vodka, this time in chilled miniature wine glasses. The restaurant, comprised of stately rooms decorated with gilded lions and brass chandeliers, also created its own liqueur, Goldwasser, a sweet herbal drink with flecks of gold floating in it.

About an hour away from Gdansk is Starogard Gdanski distillery, where Poland's most popular premium vodka, Sobieski, is produced, along with liqueurs and flavored vodkas. One of the most distinct flavors is called Herbe de Pologne, a combination of unripe orange, lavender, cloves, balsam, and what they call "bison grass"—the grass that bison eat. The herb vodka combined with apple juice nets a popular drink nicknamed "apple pie" for how the spiciness of the vodka plays off the fruity juice.

The Starogard Gdanski distillery was opened in the mid-1800s and during World War II was used mainly for creating "technical spirits"—biofuel—for the German army. After the war, the distillery became a state-owned business. In 1998, it was commercialized and underwent a $20-million renovation that made it one of the most advanced stills in the world. Walking through the distillery, the sound of machinery buzzes while men in blue lab coats look on as a wall of computers monitor the distilling process. Rooms are a tangle of stainless steel bins and piping, giving off a faint alcohol smell.

The distillery's general manager, Waldemar Lewandowski, explained that in the last ten years, the majority of vodka production shifted from using potatoes to rye, because rye is cheaper and easier to store than potatoes, and it creates a more neutral flavor. When I compare the two side by side, potato vodka is sweeter, with a harsher aftertaste.

Assessing the quality of vodka can be a tricky thing because it's prized for being without aroma, taste, or color. But at the same time, leaving impurities in can give it more character. Lewandowski said that the quality of rye and water certainly make a difference, but at a certain point of purity, the differences between brands lie in fancy bottles and marketing.

With that in mind, the souvenir of choice at Starogard Gdanski is a life-size, rifle-shaped bottle of Wódka Staropolska, a yellow fruit-flavored liquor. It can be bought for about $250 and comes with its own rifle bag. Now, if I could just figure out how to pour the waist-high bottle without spilling anything. I also wanted to take home all of the flavors that I've tried, from grapefruit and cranberry vodka to liqueurs with flavors like toffee, coconut, lemon, and cumin.

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