George’s Rants & Raves: ZU (Zubrowka) Vodka
A couple of weeks ago my editor emailed me and told me I would be getting a bottle of ZU Vodka to try. ZU? Sounds African! African vodka, who ever heard of such a thing? With vodka, anything is possible, as I have learned over the years. I do believe vodka is made in every country on the planet, and I’m willing to bet you there are probably over 10,000 brands of vodka. If that number sounds high to you then consider this. Tequila is only made in Mexico and they alone produce over 2,000 brands! Anything is possible; hell they even distill 4 brands of Vodka here in Ohio and those are only the ones I’m aware of.
When the bottle finally arrived a few days later, I discovered that it wasn’t made in Africa but instead came from Poland and ZU was short for Zubrowka. I can’t tell you how completely surprised and delighted I was to be holding this bottle in my hands. I felt like a child on Christmas morning waiting to tear into my first present. It was like a reunion with a long lost friend you thought had died and then you accidentally bumped into at the mall. I grew up on this stuff and it has triggered delightful memories of my wild and crazy childhood. Yes, that’s right. I said childhood and I am fully aware that the legal drinking age in America is 21, but let me explain.
As you can probably guess by my last name, I am Polish. I was born in England as my parents were immigrating to America from Poland along with a dozen or so aunts and uncles and cousins. Our families settled in Detroit and Chicago and Cincinnati depending on where they could find work. The one common denominator in all those cities was the “placowka,” which literally translated is the outpost. In these cases, it was more like the local tavern where Polish immigrants hung out. It was a combination bar and eatery where old world favorites were served. It always had a hall attached where wedding receptions took place and bingo was played on Thursday nights and union meetings were held. It was a family type place that actually welcomed children and even crying infants, like me. Getting me to shut up was way beyond difficult. One day my mother finally figured out how to do it.
Before I go on with that, let me say that you have to understand that the national Polish drink is vodka. Hell, we invented it, and I’ll beat to a pulp any Russian who tries to say otherwise. The Polish drink more vodka than water, and I do not exaggerate; well maybe a little bit. There were shots of the stuff on every table and all up and down the bar. It was everywhere. About half the shots were filled with straight up plain old vodka but the other half were bison grass flavored vodka, a favorite from the homeland. People would come in and order their special dishes from the past accompanied by shots and for a brief moment they would be transported back to places they had left behind and places they would never see again. It was during one of those meals that I was in full piss and vinegar mode when my mother had enough of me. She dipped one finger in a shot of bison grass flavored vodka and shoved it in my mouth. It was love at first taste. I stopped crying and squirming and yelling and pooping in my diaper and really, really wished I could talk so I could say just one word, “MORE”.
In Europe, it was, and still is, a custom to give even children a taste of wine or spirits with meals and for special occasions. As I grew older and wiser and reached the ripe old age of 9, I took full advantage of this old world tradition. I quickly learned that running amuck in the “placowka” and roughhousing with other boys and chasing little girls would wear thin on everyone in the place and eventually someone would slip me a little something to “calm that asshole down”. That little something more often than not turned out to be Bison grass flavored vodka. Those rollicking good times of my childhood eventually came to a much too soon end but my recollections of those few tastes of that vodka stayed buried in my subconscious only to resurrect this week.
I finally snapped out of my revelry and gazed upon the clear bottle with the green pin striped label and the words “The Original” jumped out at me. God, I hope so. This hooch has been made in Poland for over 600 years. This is a rye grain vodka that is infused with the aromatic plant Hierochloe odorata. It is called Bison grass because it is the favorite food of Europe’s biggest remaining herd of bison that live in a remote corner of Poland in the last remaining primeval forest in Europe. This plant grows in small, hard to find clumps, resists cultivation and still has to be harvested by hand.
This vodka is a very, very pale green and inside the bottle is one tall lone blade of Bison grass. Popping open the cap, I jam my nose into the neck of the bottle and inhale green fields of gently swaying grasses and faint hints of incense. There is absolutely no alcohol/ethanol up front. That botanical treat is followed by vanilla and lavender and, of all things, walnuts. Those flavors continue right down from the nose and flow seamlessly onto the palate. Never has a nose been so faithfully followed up by a similar experience in the palate. It lays calmly and smoothly on the tongue only to provide a bit of a tingle as it goes down with a nice long floral finish. This is an absolutely delightful infused vodka and if you have read any of my other rants you know that in all these years I have only tasted one other infused vodka that I thought was worth drinking. All the others taste like hopeless cesspools of chemical and toxic waste.
Buy this vodka and try it and you will see and experience what I fell in love with way back when, even as a youngster with a decidedly uneducated palate. At just around $25.00 per bottle, it’s a super premium steal with a unique flavor all its own.
By the way, I got mom a taste and didn’t tell her what it was and asked her to see if she could identify it by flavor alone. She took that first sip and simply looked at me and then tilted her head to one side and her eyes lit up and all she said was one word, “Zubrowka”. She sank down into her favorite chair and her eyes misted over and with an unfocused gaze she looked up, and I could tell she was back at the “placowka” holding me in her arms and lovingly shoving her finger down my throat.
By George Brozowski
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