February 02, 2021

Poland and vodka – history of a love/hate relationship

Some react ecstatic, some find it curious, others find it repulsive, but it leaves few indifferent – vodka! For many people one of the first associations with Poland is that it is the land of vodka, some would even say it was invented here. Let’s have a proper look at the topic, then – welcome to the history of vodka in Poland!

Polish vodka

Polish vodka and some ideas on how to drink it.


What vodka is and how it is made - historical approach

Before we start, though, we need to deal with one issue; what IS vodka, actually? Let’s ask the Polish government: it is a distilled alcoholic beverage of no less than 37.5% alcohol content created by mixing ethanol extracted from cereals or potatoes with water. Let’s focus on the distillation part for a moment, as it is the crucial word here; the very birth of vodka is connected to it. The process consists of, to put it simply, heating a certain mixture in one pot, so that a part of it evaporates and is cooled down in another pot. The process was known already in the ancient times, for example ancient Greeks would extract salt from seawater that way. But for us, the important moment is the 8th century, when alcohol was extracted by distilling wine and described in… today’s Iraq! Yes, the grandpa of vodka comes from the hands of Arab alchemists during the great Muslim expansion of its early days; actually, the very word „alcohol” comes from those days and means in Arabic „powder”, another alchemical product, used as an eyeliner! Only later was the word taken by European medieval alchemists and applied to liquids – still not necessarily alcoholic! Actually, vodka itself wasn’t originally a beverage, either; it was considered by Arabs as a helpful tool to create perfumes and later as medicine and that’s how Europe also considered it. Also, European alchemists added another important step – they kept on distilling until reaching a liquid without smell and taste, but with very high alcohol content. Actually, one important alchemist was convinced that it is the philosopher’s stone, the fifth missing element of which the stars are made! They named it „aqua vitae”, the water of life!

Polish Alchemist

"Alchemist Sędziwój" by Jan Matejko (1867)


The first vodka in Poland - linguistic approach 

There is a very interesting linguistic confusion when it comes to the first document proving the existence of vodka in Poland; it was issued in the city of Sandomierz in 1405. True enough, the word „wódka” is there (actually spelt „wodco”), but… The document deals with sale of property and part of it was a little pond – that’s what the word is referring to! How come? „Wódka” is a diminutive of the word „woda”, which is water; in medieval Polish „wódka” had multiple meanings, one of them „little bodies of water”. That document till the very day is used to prove that vodka existed in Poland already in late middle ages – as we can see, it doesn’t. Still, it is most probably true that distillation was indeed present at that time, but vodka wasn’t a beverage yet; it was considered still mostly as medicine. Proof is a very popular book from 1534, printed in Kraków, „On herbs and their potency”, in which the author describes many recipes for infused „wódka’s”. The word here is still not as we use it today, as its meaning was very general – any liquid obtained through distillation (perfumes, essences, etc) was dubbed as such as well. To give you the last and most ironic meaning of the word – when (strong) alcohol became part of culture, „wódka” was… a person who drinks water only; in other words, an abstinent!! Actually, the meaning that the word has today got finally set within its frames in the modern times. The famous Swedish brand Absolut adopted it as late as the 70s of the last century. In the end, it is one of only a handful words from Polish which influenced other languages, not the other way round.


Stage 1 - vodka becomes a drink of Polish nobles 

What were the words back in the day? Well… Having mentioned Sweden, their word takes you back to the origin of vodka’s creation – „branntvin”, so „burning wine” (as the first vodkas were obtained by distilling, so burning, wine). In Russian, it used to be „hlebovoye vino”, which means „bread wine” and indicates a very important change for us – wine or grapes are not used, as our climate is too cold; cereals start taking their place. In Polish, it was „gorzałka”, „burning water”, so again a nod to the process of distillation (not, as many assume, to the burning sensation when drinking it). Soon, when people realised that, medicinal purposes aside, vodka can be a beverage, especially that it can easily be infused with herbs or mixed with fruit, it started becoming an integral part of a noble household, each wealthier family having a home distillery and guarding their secret recipes. Many would bury a barrel of mead when a son was born to open it at his wedding (curious to know more about Polish mead, here is our article on the subject); now, it was vodka and „starka” was the term. The dark side of drinking such strong spirits surfaced soon as well and already by the late 16th century first literary complaints about drunkenness and alcohol addiction started appearing. Some important battles were lost because both the generals and the regular soldiers were too drunk to fight. By the first part of the 18th century, heavy drinking was necessary, as it was an affront to refuse. To make it impossible, special tools were devised, for example a double shot-glass, similar in design to hourglass; if you turn it upside down to show that you don’t want to drink anymore, it… still is a shot-glass. It is only the second part of the 18th century when French culture and the first whiffs of enlightenment arrived that the nobility became more temperate and excessive drinking was not in good taste anymore. 


Polish nobleman drinking vodka

A village custom of "goat guiding" performed in front of a Polish nobleman, by Michał Elwiro Andriolli


Stage 2 - vodka becomes Polish national drink

You might have noticed that talk was of the nobles; vodka was actually not a cheap drink at that time, especially properly refined. Nobility and city patricians could afford it, the lower classes had only the once-distilled version, which wasn’t good, leaving vodka for special occasions, so still 80% of the general population would drink beer mostly. It is the very same 18th century which saw nobility brought to moderation, when vodka was forced upon the peasants. To explain that process, we need to go back to the turn of the 15th/16th centuries when „propinacja”, so the right to distill spirits, was granted by the king of the time to the nobles; they had a monopoly in their lands to sell the vodka they made. It wasn’t a big deal originally, as their wealth consisted mostly in exporting cereals to Western Europe, only the necessary part was being used for internal consumption. But things changed – 18th-century colonial powers started bringing food from the colonies, new competitors arose, cereal prices dropped and, finally, in 1772 Poland was partitioned and the Baltic coast was taken by Prussia, which applied crippling tolls. What to do with all that rye, wheat and barley? The answer was simple: vodka. The „propinacja” privilege means that peasants who live and work the land of a particular noble, have to also drink his vodka. Suddenly, inns and taverns, which used to be found mainly at intersections of roads, start popping up in every village, so the little money the peasants could make on the side, goes back into the noble’s pocket. Add to it two more important events – in the 1730s in Kraków potatoes appear and within a hundred years become the new staple of Polish diet, both solid and liquid (potatoes having more sugars than cereals are better for vodka distillation); plus, the industrial revolution also influences vodka production with new ways to distill and refine. In the 19th century vodka was everywhere, cheap to make and giving huge profits with, by that time, a loyal clientele. Sparing you the statistics, some parts of Poland entered something called the vodka economy – up to 60-70% of official revenue was linked to vodka one way or another. Needless to say, issues arose; the drunk population is not exactly the most hard-working and peaceful. By the middle of 19th century movements to promote responsible drinking or outright abstinence became more and more widespread, especially promoted by the church and the newborn peasant-oriented political movements and parties. 

a Polish village inn

A village inn.


It is the 19th century though that created most of Polish drinking traditions that we know of today. Drinking pure vodka without flavouring, using it at every occasion (baptism, wedding and funeral; business deals; sunday meals; anything will do), sense of pride and coming-of-age connected to it, for boys especially as a sign of masculinity and courage. Maybe the best proof is a French proverb, „ivre comme un Polonais”, which means „drunk as a Pole.'' There is a whole mythology around it now when it comes to French and Polish soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars drinking together and then only Poles being able to stand, fight and win the battle. Napoleon supposedly commented on this phenomenon saying: „if you drink, drink like Poles”. That’s of course to show how Poles can handle alcohol and how brave it makes them (what really happened – during a campaign in Spain, Napoleon gave an order which one of his officers commented „you must be drunk to carry it out”; Poles actually followed the order and won, which then Napoleon commented „I wish all my armies were drunk as Poles'' - so it’s all within the world of metaphors).

Napoleon and Poles

Audience of a Pole, Franciszek Ignacy Narocki with Napoleon by Jean-Charles Tardieu


It wasn’t all bad, though – home distilling of good quality was widespread as well as the foundation of the first industrial brands, Baczewski in 1782 and Łańcut by the Czartoryski family in 1800, setting the standard for modern branding in Poland and beyond. Poland entered the 20th century and its regained independence after WW1 with a mixed bag of issues and opportunities. Alcoholism was still a problem, but there were new brands appearing, drinking culture was vibrant among the artists, with beer still standing strong and new types of alcohol coming in. All of that came to a halt with the beginning of WW2 and later with communism. First, the Nazi German officials would often pay for compulsory food supplies with alcohol and then came nationalization and unification of communism. Alcohol production became a complete state monopoly and the communist government started behaving like the nobility of old – vodka was supposed to be one of the main sources of revenue. Official posters might have been anti-alcoholic, but when in the late 70s economy collapsed and shelves in shops were empty, vodka was still there, sometimes used as payment for work, just like during the war. It actually became sort of an early bitcoin, as money was worthless. Best illustration is one statistic – in the interwar period, Poles statistically drank 1-2 litres of pure alcohol per person per year; late 70s, almost 10 litres!! And that’s only counting official numbers, but moonshine was rampant, people would also drink perfumes or denatured alcohol and vodka was frequently stolen during production and transport! 

Communist anti-alcohol poster

A poster from communist times saying: "Drinking denatured alcohol causes death"


Vodka and Poland today and a couple of stories of vodka wars

Fortunately, communism fell and since the 90s alcoholism (which is still a big social issue) is being fought against, not only through laws and changes in culture, but also in softer ways, like patterns of consumption. A big year was 2004 – not only because Poland entered the EU, but also because, for the first time in around 200 years, Poles drank more beer than vodka per head. Homemade vodka is also decriminalized and especially the flavoured nalewkas and herbal infusions are very fashionable, influencing industry as well through introduction of craft brands (we love the Raciborska brand!). The industry itself recuperated and stormed the world – today there are 3 Polish brands in the top 10 best-selling world vodkas! It is best if you check our guide to how and what to drink if you want to know more about vodka in Poland today, just click here.

Polish flavoured vodka

Making nalewkas at home


Last but not least, to show you how serious the issue of vodka is, let us tell you about… the vodka wars!! In 1977 the US filed a lawsuit against the Soviet Union to the International Court of Justice so that they cannot use the word „vodka” exclusively anymore saying that Soviet Union started producing vodka only in 1923 (because before it was Russia, so a different country) and the US started in 1920. It was easy for the Soviet Union to prove that they are a direct continuation of the tsarist Russia, but suddenly they got backstabbed… by Poland! It says that only Poland has the right to the word – imagine that, it’s the Cold War and another communist country behaving like that! The Soviet government got angry and hired the best expert on the matter, a certain Pokhlebkin, who finally managed to prove USSR’s right and the Court ruled in their favour in 1982. A true vodka war! There’s only one problem with it and it’s not that Poland lost; it’s that it never happened. Yes, fake news is not a modern invention at all – dear mr Pokhlebkin invented the whole story in his book in 1991 to appeal to the Russian public who also feel (maybe even more than Poles) that vodka forms an integral part of their culture and identity. Just a quote from a critic, M.L. Schrad: “If you read this book, keep a bottle of strong vodka by your side to stun the more thoughtful parts of your brain. The parts that are left should enjoy this eccentric collection of curious facts, crackpot hypotheses, phony statistics, anticapitalist polemics and stalinist snobberies without worrying if it all fits together... Most frustrating of all, Pokhlebkin often does not bother to offer evidence for his sometimes fascinating claims. How can we know if he is writing fiction or fact?” A much more real vodka war happened in 2005-2007 in the European Union over the definition of vodka – Poland and Sweden wanted a narrow definition, similar to whisky or champagne, which would mean that only vodka from the vodka belt could be called vodka; that was opposed by the Western countries, which wanted a liberal definition, permitting for example vodka made of grapes or melasa. In the end, a compromise was reached – the liberal definition was agreed upon with an important detail that vodka made of different ingredients than cereals or potatoes has to state it visibly on the etiquette. That issue prompted the Polish government to introduce the Polish vodka as an official geographical designation; hence it is not Polish vodka, but Polish Vodka now! Created solely from one of five types of cereals or potatoes grown in Poland and processed fully, from start to finish, in Poland. So, next time you are in a shop or bar, look for nothing else, but Polish Vodka – raise a toast and say „na zdrowie!!”.

And if you happen to be in Poland make sure that you do not miss our beer and food and vodka tours. Because as once Napoleon said "if you drink, drink like Poles" or at least with Poles! 😉

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