Warsaw Spirit: Finding the History of Vodka in Poland

By Tim Johnson
Tim Johnson
Tim Johnson
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.
July 26, 2021 Updated: August 9, 2021

Once, back in 1915, the streets of Warsaw flowed with vodka. Hoping to strike a blow at the soul of the Polish people, retreating Russian soldiers in the First World War dumped more than 2.5 million gallons of Luksusowa and Wyborowa, leaving the streets outside of the country’s largest distillery soaked with the good stuff. But the Poles don’t give up easily—especially when it comes to their favorite beverage, and, many will tell you, their national treasure.

These days, walking through a hulking industrial building, once abandoned but recently revitalized and transformed into the largest museum of its kind on earth, this spirit was all around me—even under my feet, with the floors made from the wooden staves of vodka barrels.

And that battle? It continues.

“It’s right there in our language,” a guide explained, rather passionately. “Vodka means ‘little water’ in Polish.”

For this, and many other reasons I learned, the people of this Central European country are eager to argue that it all started right there (and not in Russia).

It’s a hot and ongoing debate—who invented vodka? Russia has long claimed the title, but Poland, lately, is making a case, especially in Warsaw, at the Polish Vodka Museum. Located in Praga, just east of downtown Warsaw, this huge red-brick factory once stood in one of the city’s toughest districts. But its rise has been paralleled by an ascent across the city, a bona fide boom taking place, with craft distillers opening bars dedicated to this treasure all over town.

And a firm belief that vodka is their birthright underpins all of it. Museum guides have illustrated the 600-year history of the spirit in this country, a tour that includes a massive map of Europe showing the progression of alcohol production—from west to east, a road that reaches Poland before their rivals.

The museum is an interactive place, where you can touch and taste everything that goes into making the spirit, from grains (often rye, wheat, or barley) to potatoes, seeing the stills and finishing with a short session at the Vodka Institute. During that session, an instructor pours four samples, pointing out tasting notes, and reiterating what is becoming a bit of a mantra—that vodka is, above all, Polish.

Epoch Times Photo
Different types of vodkas are for sale at the Warsaw Vodka Museum. (r.nagy/Shutterstock)

In the same building, at a stylish little bistro called Wuwu, Chef Adriana Marczewska pairs gourmet meals with dozens of vodkas, all of them listed on the wall. A former contestant on the Polish version of “Top Chef,” she’s worked with Michelin-starred chefs, including the celebrated Wojciech Modest Amaro, who opened a tiny restaurant in a former public bathroom and was one of the first restaurants in the country to focus on cuisine sourced from local producers.

Marczewska prepares the classics with an upscale twist, from veal dumplings to holdovers from communist times—one of those being something called “pork luncheon.” It’s a taste of an era when Poles routinely ate at corner spots called “milk bars,” where the food was hot and cheap, and the fork and knife were often roped to the side of the table, so nobody could walk away with them. The mystery meat was tender, both cooked and served in a can, and she smiled as I downed it heartily (along with the recommended vodka for the dish).

And it isn’t just Polish food that’s paired with the spirit—it’s history, too. The interwar years (from 1918 to 1939) were good times there. For more than a century, the country had been partitioned between Austria, Prussia, and Germany, but with the fall of empires after the First World War, the Second Polish Republic formed a parliamentary democracy, gave the vote to women, and enjoyed both peace and prosperity for more than two decades—until the German invasion marked the beginning of the Second World War.

But at Woda Ognista, literally “firewater,” the interwar years never end. “We try and celebrate those heady days, with everything we do,” explained museum co-owner Emil Oponowicz, sitting in front of a portrait of a bow-tied bartender, pouring fire from glass to glass. A snug, stylish space, the place felt a little like a speakeasy, with leather banquettes, a pushed-tin ceiling, oak walls, and bartenders in classic 1920s garb. “All of our seasonal cocktail lists are inspired by that period.” Oponowicz noted that they’ve used everything from songs to poems to popular figures from the Second Polish Republic to create their vodka-forward menus.

All across town on warm summer nights, the feeling was celebratory and the liquid creativity seemed to never end. Along the streets leading to the main square in Old Town, the patios were packed with revelers, one of the best at a bar called Klar, where the owners/bartenders maintain that the secret to their success sits with their homemade infusions and tinctures. These concoctions, numbering in the dozens and created from ingredients gathered at farmers markets, can take anywhere from a few months to even years to steep. Bringing them out from what looks to be a mad scientist’s cabinet of secrets, the bartenders pour everything from rhubarb to dill pickle to beetroot (a bestseller) with the national spirit.

And while it may not match the size or overall import of that former distillery over in Praga, I finished my visit in another vodka museum. But Stanislaw Zacharaiasz, one of the owners of The Roots, an upscale bar adjacent to the opera house, had saved that for the end of the night. First, he showed off their three-month, barrel-aged vodka, aging right there on the bar, which has a smoky, almost whiskey-like taste. Next, he talked about the Elixir, their sister restaurant located next door, which offers 600 vodkas and recommends vodka pairings with dinner. He noted that they grow and forage for their own infusion ingredients, everything from dandelions to traditional Polish herbs, such as bison grass.

He saved the best for last. “Would you like to see the museum?” he asked, sliding out from behind the bar and leading me to a small space across the alley in the back. Opening the door with a key, Zacharaiasz showed off rows of displays, packed with all sorts of cool, sometimes quirky items—classic bottles and stylized labels from the first half of the 20th century, flasks from the Napoleonic Wars, old goblets and shakers, even a rare first-edition Jerry Thomas cocktail manual. The place is a marvel, the collection lovingly curated and exhibited for just a relative trickle of visitors. Standing there, it seemed like enough evidence to win the argument—that this level of devotion and celebration to assume the “little water,” this national treasure, was born in Poland, in places such as that one.

Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.

Tim Johnson
Tim Johnson
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.