Zubrowka (Bison Grass) Vodka
Review: Zubrowka (Bison Grass) Vodka
a Review by Chip Dykstra (Aka Arctic Wolf)
Posted September 13, 2011
Zubrowka or ‘Bison Grass’ Vodka is an original Polish Vodka distilled at the Polmos Bialystok Distillery located 200 km northeast of Warsaw. In this region of the world, Vodka (or at least a spirit similar to Vodka) has been flavoured with Bison Grass for over 600 years. The Bison grass (Hierochloe odorata or Herchloe Australis) grows in the Białowieża Forest (which lies in Northern Poland and Belarus), although distinct varieties of this herbal grass grow in other locations as well including North America where the plant has been known as ‘Sweetgrass’ or ‘Holy Grass’.
This aromatic herb has been used in for centuries in a variety of ways which include practical usage such as construction of woven baskets and aromatic stuffing for pillows. It has also been used in ritualistic ceremonies which involve burning and/or smoking the dried grass, and it has even found usage as a traditional medicine in both European and North American cultures.
In the previously mentioned Białowieża Forest, it happens to be a favourite food of the Zubr (European bison) which is how the herb become known as ‘Bison Grass’ and which is how Zubrowka Vodka received its name.
The flavour for the Zubrowka Vodka is derived by first crushing the bison grass and then forcing the distilled Vodka over it and through it again and again in a process which is apparently similar to the cold extraction method used to produce extra-virgin olive oil. The resulting extract is then blended/mixed with the base rye vodka, and the resulting flavoured Vodka is then rested for several days before it is finally filtered and bottled at 40 % alcohol by volume. A single blade of Bison Grass is placed in each bottle to continue to add a delicate layer of flavouring and ambiance to the Vodka.
When produced according to traditional methods, Zubrowka contains approximately 12 milligrams of coumarin per litre. Coumarin is prohibited as a food additive in the USA and hence Zubrowka was banned for importation to the United States in 1978. In 2011, the American licensee of the Polish company introduced a new American formulation which does not contain coumarin. The details of the production of the new formulation were not provided to me. (*source Wikipedia)
I should mention that I received a bottle of the North American formulation for Zubrowka Vodka from Ashley Calapatia, who is with the PR agency representing Zubrowka Vodka in Canada. I was requested to provide a review of the spirit here on my website, and I shall begin my review with the bottle the spirit arrives in:
The First Impression 9/10
The Zubrowka Vodka arrives in the stylish bottle pictured to the right. Two things kind of jump out at me I see the bottle. The first is the picture of the bison on the label, and the second is the blade of grass inside the bottle. These items serve their purpose well making me curious such that I want to pick the bottle up to examine it further. Once I do, I notice that the vodka has a very light olive-green tinge to its colour, and I notice that the closure at the top of the bottle is a nice cork rather than a screw cap. I begin to develop the impression that what is inside the bottle might well be worth investigating.
I like this style of presentation where my curiosity is piqued. I also like the emphasis in the presentation on the heritage of the Buffalo Grass which has been accomplished tastefully in a rather elegant design.
The First Sip 17.5/20
I had a few friends over to sample the Zubrowka with me the first time I tried it. I chilled the bottle in my freezer for a couple of hours before the tasting and when we sampled the vodka the temperature was about 2 degrees Celsius. I poured the vodka into large shot glasses for my guests (and myself) and we began. The vodka carries a light herbal aroma in the glass but identification of any particular scent was remarkably difficult. Descriptors like vanilla, sage, thyme, rosemary and cinnamon were tossed back and forth amongst us, but I think it is somewhat safer to say we discerned a lightly pungent herbal quality on both the nose and the palate that was quite different from what any of us had encountered before. I even likened the aroma to that of a freshly cut alfalfa field in early summer when the clover is just beginning to flower.
The initial flavour on the tongue seems to carry all of these impressions along with a light rye-like heat on the palate. In our group of tasters three of us liked this flavour quite well, but one of my friends thought that the ‘herbal taste’ was just a little too much. I suspect that my small sample group would be typical of any such gathering. More will like it than will not, but it will not be for everyone.
Taking a Shot 17/20
The Zubrowka goes down quite smoothly with very little if any burn. There was a nice warming in the throat after a full swallow, and the palate was left with lingering warm, pungent, herbaceous flavours. Amongst the sensations, the flavour of cinnamon was a little stronger when I took a full swallow, and I was noticing some stronger rye spices as well which warmed the palate but did not burn the throat. I am reminded of alfalfa and clover again, but just as when I took my first sip, I think it is a little precarious to firmly identify too many descriptors. It is more correct to just say that the flavour is very herbal and organic, and in my opinion very interesting and approachable.
In subsequent tastings (in my private tasting room) I noticed a light sweetness which seemed to be carried by the herbal flavours. I found I enjoyed sipping the vodka when refrigerated and served at a temperature of about 5 degrees Celsius.
Out for Dinner 17/20
With the Zubrowka Vodka, I was serving fresh buns and cheddar cheese, mini smoked sausages and hot pepperoni sticks. I added some raw veggies with mini tomatoes, celery sticks, cauliflower florets, and broccoli spears just to keep things healthy..ish. (Just in case you are wondering, my friends usually bring all the snacks.) The reactions amongst the tasters was a little mixed with three of us really liking the food served with Zubrowka. However, one of my friends disliked the ‘herbal’ flavour the Bison Grass Vodka added to the food. I suspect this would be typical of any such gathering, the unique flavour of the Bison Grass Vodka is not going to be for everyone. But it appears that for those who like it, the appeal is very strong.
As the Zubrowka is a flavoured Vodka, I had to consider the herbal nature of the spirit before I decided which cocktails to construct. I did try a few typical Vodka cocktails, the Cosmopolitan, and the Pink Pussy Cat; but I realize that these were not necessarily the style of cocktail which was intended by the producers of this Vodka. Having said that, the Cosmo and the Pussy Cat tasted fine, not stellar but I would certainly serve them to my friends again with no hesitation. I did discover two cocktails which seemed to suit the herbal nature of the Zubrowka, one I was sent by the PR Agency for Zubrowka Vodka, the Appletini (see recipe below), and one was a rather obvious Tea based cocktail I call, Green Chai Zubrowka Tea (see recipe below).
You may read some of my other Liqueur and Favoured Spirit Reviews (click the link) if you wish to have some comparative reviews.
Final Score: 86.5/100
Recommended for Light Sipping and Herbaceous Cocktails
Green Chai Zubrowka Tea
4 oz Hot Green Tea
1 oz Zubrowka ‘Bison Grass’ Vodka
dollop of Honey (or sweeten to taste)
(I think the construction of this recipe is self-evident)
1 1/2 oz Zubrowka ‘Bison Grass’ Vodka
3 oz Apple Juice
Splash of Creme de Mente
Garnish with Mint Leaves or Apple Slices
Add the first three Ingredients to a Metal Shaker with ice
Shake until the outside of the shaker frosts
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Garnish with Mint Leaves or Apple Slices
You may (loosely) interpret my score as follows.
0-25 A spirit with a rating this low would actually kill you.
26-49 Depending upon your fortitude you might actually survive this.
50 -59 You are safe to drink this…but you shouldn’t.
60-69 Substandard swill which you may offer to people you do not want to see again.
70-74 Now we have a fair mixing Vodka. Accept this but make sure it is mixed into a cocktail.
75-79 You may begin to serve this to friends, again for cocktails only.
80-84 We begin to enjoy this Vodka in shots, although cocktails are preferable.
85-89 Excellent! Shots or cocktails!
90-94 You may want to hoard this for yourself.
95-97.5 The Cream of the Crop
98+ I haven’t met this bottle yet…but I want to.
Very loosely we may put my scores into terms that you may be familiar with on a Gold, Silver, and Bronze medal scale as follows:
70 – 80 Bronze Medal (Recommended only as a mixer)
81 – 89 Silver Medal (Recommended for shots and mixing cocktails)
90 – 95 Gold Medal (Highly Recommended for Vodka Shots and Sublime Cocktails)
95.5+ Platinum Award (Highest Recommendation)