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The Tatanka cocktail using Żubrówka vodka at Dante in New York's West Village.
The Tatanka cocktail using Żubrówka vodka at Dante in New York's West Village.
Nick Solares

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Bison Grass Vodka Is the Stuff of Bartenders’ Dreams

Meet the only bartender-approved "flavored" vodka.

The Mitch Martini used to keep me up at night. When I was the cocktail guy at Sydney’s now-shuttered Bayswater Brasserie, we would make that drink in such obscene quantities that I would literally dream about it. Some might call them nightmares. But people would come to our bar just to have this rather tasty (though a little too fruity) drink. That said, we never laid claim to having invented it as much as inheriting it. The Mitch Martini's creator was a fellow I never actually met named Giovanni Burdi and it was at London’s late famed Match Bar that he devised this rather simple and annoyingly delicious cocktail.

Much of its popularity can be attributed to the fact that it contains ingredients that most people like: peach, passionfruit, apple juice and vodka. But not just any vodka. Żubrówka—known to many as "that bison grass vodka"—is the only tipple of choice here and no other substitutes can be used in its place. Trust me, I’ve tried. For a start, this vodka actually has, wait for it ... flavor. There are also notes of lavender, vanilla and, of course, cut grass. When mixed into a cocktail, almost every single vodka on earth gets lost in the quagmire. Not this one.

For a start, this vodka actually has, wait for it ... flavor.

I first discovered Żubrówka in earnest after several trips to London just before the new millennium. Żubrówka and apple juice was like, a thing. I quickly found out that this was the preferred mixed drink for off duty bartenders and by god is it delicious. With the exception of the gin & tonic, never before had I tried something so simple and so refreshing and yet more polarizing: tall glass, packed with ice, a good slug of Żubrówka, cold apple juice and big lime wedge squeezed in. I was hooked.

Pronounced "zoo-broov-ka," the vodka itself calls on over 400 years of history and is made from rye (as are almost all Polish vodkas) and then infused with a specific grass, hierochloe odorata, which is native to the Białowieża Forest in north eastern Poland. The grass contains a chemical called coumarin which, apart from being used to flavor tobacco and cakes (among other things), also has certain medicinal value, such as being a blood thinner. Healthy vodka? Well, that might be a stretch.

A bartender pours Żubrówka. All photos by Nick Solares.

Some say that the farmers and woodsmen of the forest would have a shot of Żubrówka every morning before they ventured off to work to give them the strength of a bison. Or was it a shot before they jumped into bed with their wives before they, well, you know? I forget. Either way, it has a long standing tradition as a drink that exerts some sort of ethereal power.

... it has a long standing tradition as a drink that exerts some sort of ethereal power.

There have been, and still are, many imitators made in several countries (mostly in Eastern Europe), although most are vastly inferior to those made at the Polmos Białystok distillery in Poland. In fact, the version made at that distillery—the only one licensed by law to make Żubrówka—is still banned in the United States because it contains higher levels of coumarin.

To make the vodka, first the grass is cut and laid out to dry in the open air. It is then bundled up into small bunches and the neutral spirit is forced through the bundles, absorbing the subtle flavor and color of the sweet grass. A single blade of the grass is added to each bottle although this is merely for aesthetics and doesn’t impart any flavor. Its greenish/yellow hue suggests a vegetal note that carries right through from the aroma to the aftertaste.

Somerset Maugham, the famous British playwright and novelist, wrote in his 1944 tome The Razor's Edge that Żubrówka "smells of freshly mown hay and spring flowers, of thyme and lavender, and it's soft on the palate and so comfortable, it's like listening to music by moonlight." Isn’t that the most poetic description you’ve ever heard for a spirit?

Young's The Mitch cocktail at his bar, Dante, in New York's West Village.

Żubrówka’s origins date back to the eighth century when someone had perhaps accidentally combined alcohol with medicinal herbs. There is still much debate as to whether it originated in present day Poland or Russia, since discerning this truth is made difficult by the frequently changing borders in the region throughout history.

By the 16th century, there were approximately seventy-two herbal vodkas made from rye, buckwheat and oats. Żubrówka itself became popular after the Polish-Lithuanian accord in 1569 when the Polish royal court would rest at various hunting lodges in the Bialowieza Forest on their way to the northeast.

Żubrówka is one of the most polarizing spirits in the world ...

The grass from which the vodka is made is especially liked by the European bison that roam the Białowieża Forest. The bison, or zubr as they are called in Polish, have attracted much attention. From the 14th century onward they were some of the only remaining wild bison herds on the European continent until 1919. Efforts were made in the 1920s to introduce bison from zoos and private refuges into the forest and today there are more than three hundred. Not surprisingly, the historical and cultural significance of the vodka has created strong reactions to protect what is considered a uniquely Polish product.

Żubrówka was a lucrative export product during the Communist period and is once again regaining popularity in the post-Cold War era as more and more Western and Japanese consumers develop a taste for the greenish vodka. Polish producers have suffered due to the decreasing popularity of vodka amongst younger Poles and rampant smuggling of cheaper versions of the drink from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Beginning April 2003, as part of its EU accession, Żubrówka—defined as vodka made with bison grass from the Białowieża Forest—can only be produced in Poland with ingredients from Poland.

Żubrówka is one of the most polarizing spirits in the world; one with a fascinating history that deserves our attention. Its flavor is so unique and particular that it can’t be flippantly substituted with any old vodka. It’s only a matter of time until its reverence stretches well beyond the bartender and arouses the curiosity of the general public. Now, go make yourself a Mitch.

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