Let me tell you a fascinating story about vodka production in Poland. Did we, Poles, pioneer this process? Or did someone beat us to it? Pinpointing vodka’s first appearance in Poland is tricky. However, Tomasz Lachowski, in his publication „J.A. BACZEWSKI. The only such vodka, the only such history” traces its history back to several centuries ago.
The Origins of Vodka in Poland
By the late 14th century, people between the Vistula and the Oder began producing and consuming a liquor they called 'booze’. They believed it had healing properties, even though it scorched the palate. That’s quite a beginning for vodka, isn’t it?
The term 'vodka’ (or 'wodco’) first shows up in a 1405 document from the land court of the Sandomierz province. It also crops up in a Dąbrówka city goods list from 30 years later. However, it’s worth to say that the old Polish term 'vodka’ initially referred to a water-filled ditch or small pond. Only in later centuries did this word acquire its modern meaning.
The Liquor Boom
This new liquor quickly gained popularity, and selling it meant big profits. The nobility, being there, you need to know, didn’t want to share these profits with other nations. They introduced propination, a law that gave only them the right to produce and sell alcoholic beverages.
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I can tell you that propination led to huge profits for the nobility. But, as Lachowicz notes, this restricted the scope of distilleries to the local market. Some historians believe that this lost Poland the chance to make its excellent liquors an important export.
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Emergence of Serious Vodka Producers
It wasn’t until the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries that major vodka producers emerged in Poland. Among the first was the Lviv company J.A. Baczewski, whose products resurfaced in Polish stores after several decades.
Other noteworthy producers include the Polish vodka and liqueur factory of Jakub Haberfeld in Oświęcim, the J. Prochownik vodka factory in Poznań, the factory of the Counts of Potocki in Łańcut, and the J.A. Baczewski vodka and liquer factory in Lviv. And that’s how Polish vodka made its mark on the world.
The Rise of Prestigious Polish Brands
One such brand was J.A. Baczewski, which grew into a prominent pre-war Polish name. It was particularly popular among the elites of the Second Polish Republic for its products, which were presented in gorgeous decanters.
These decanters reappeared in stores after seven decades, reviving their past glory. If you want a taste of this history, you can still find these beautiful containers today!
Moving to the 19th century, I think it’s worth noting that this is when the fiery debate between Poles and Russians started. The question was, who began producing vodka first? According to William Vasilyevich Pochlebkin’s „The History of Vodka,” this issue was even brought before a special tribunal in the late 70s and early 80s of the last century.
Polish Vodka Through the Centuries
In the 16th century, vodka was generally referred to as a type of medicine or cosmetic. Over the next two centuries, the role of the 'first aid kit’ lady became prominent in noble courts. It’s tough to say whether it was more akin to a bartender or a shaman.
It provided concoctions „some for health, others for pleasure”, produced in court distilleries. Yes, you heard that right, the Polish nobility had their own distilleries in their manor houses. And this wasn’t forbidden back then!
The trend at the time was high-quality flavored vodkas, enhanced with a variety of additives. Some were exotic for the time, like ginger, cloves, nutmeg, or sandalwood leaves. There was a competition among the nobility to use increasingly 'original’ ingredients.
Some drinks, like the rosolis made from sundew leaf extract, showcased the prestige of these beverages. Others used ambergris, a secretion from whale digestive systems, to add a subtle aroma.
With the advent of the 19th-century Industrial Revolution, small distilleries transformed into large factories, boosting production, especially of liqueurs. The interwar period brought the fashion for cocktails to Poland, which remain popular today. As you need to know, vodka is perfect for cocktails because it enhances but does not dominate the drink.
The Great Vodka Debate – Poland or Russia?
The dispute over who produced vodka first, Poland or Russia, was taken up by the Polish Vodka Museum two years ago. Located in an area deeply intertwined with the history of vodka production, the museum sits where the Warsaw Vodka Factory „Koneser” operated after World War I. Here you can immerse yourself in the 500-year history of booze.
The museum guide, Karol, enlightens us that historical records suggest Polish merchants exchanged vodka for goods while trading in the east. This would indicate that we, the Poles, commercialized it first. „So vodka culture came to Russia from Poland,” says Karol.
Of course, the Russian Vodka Museum in Moscow has a different take on this. They stand by the claim that Russian vodka predates Polish vodka, as distilate production reportedly began there around 1440. Yet, this vodka tug of war continues. Who do you think was first? Let me know..
Chronicles from Vodka Enthusiasts
In the Polish Vodka Museum, you can watch a film detailing the memories of vodka business employees who are equally enthusiasts. One of them is Wanda Mościcka, who used to head the vodka department in the state-owned Central Foreign Trade Center.
Mościcka narrates an interesting story of when she was interviewed by the „Los Angeles Times” during the communist era. The interview focused on the export of vodka to roughly 50 countries.
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I can tell the interview got quite interesting. The journalist asked whether Polish or Russian vodka came first. You can imagine how Mościcka might have felt then! Thanks to this famous interview, published in numerous foreign titles, we were hailed as pioneers of the vodka business.
The Mysterious Tribunal’s Verdict
In 1982, a curious tribunal concluded that the story about the monk Isidore and his drink was valid. Yet, the Poles could not produce any documents to prove their alcohol was crafted before „bread wine” graced the tables. As it stands, the Russians were right in the dispute, at least according to their paperwork.
However, I believe it’s worth saying that everything points to Pochlebkin fabricating the entire tale about Monk Izydor and the elusive tribunal. Tomasz Lachowski highlighted that despite thorough searching, no evidence was found to back the Russian’s claims.
So, will we ever know for certain who first started producing vodka? I am convinced it’s a question that will continue to pique our curiosity. Maybe one day, we will find definitive proof. Until then, the mystery of vodka’s origins lives on.