Fire in the Mouth: Poland’s Bootleg Vodka Tradition
The popularity of Polish alcohols is connected with a long history of making alcoholic drinks and with recipes handed down for generations.
For centuries, Polish people have produced homemade alcoholic drinks. The technology of producing vodka came to Poland in the 13th and 14th centuries, thanks to Arabian and Italian merchants. The first written document about vodka dates to 1405, from a court in Randomizer.
The golden age for the alcohol industry developed in the 16th Century when Poland became known as Europe’s granary.
Corn production was so high that surpluses not used for food and alcohol production were exported to western Europe. In that era, each noble family produced its own unique liquor made from different fruits and herbs.
Almost every male convent also produced alcoholic drinks. Even the peasants, especially along the Polish borderland, produced their own alcohols; the most popular were made from quince and wild strawberries.
During the 17th Century, Krakow was the center of vodka production. The alcohol was exported to Silesia, and then to what is now the Czech Republic, Germany and Austria.
In 1782 Jan Baczewski opened the first big distillery in Lviv, which produced vodka and some liquors. The label stated: “The only vodka which is as good as Baczewski’s vodka is the Russian alcohol of Peter Smirnoff from Moscow.”
The Smirnoff label contained the same statement about Baczewski’s vodka. In Communist Poland after World War II, it was difficult to buy a bottle of good vodka because of the limitation created by alcohol rationing coupons.
In response, many Poles produced homemade alcohol. However, those who manufactured homemade vodka were said to be enemies of the state and were targets of TV and newspaper campaigns. Posters from that era depicted old, hunched-over men with eyeglasses and walking sticks in emaciated hands.
The poster said: “Homemade vodka is the cause of blindness.” Police raids destroyed the home distilleries, and the offenders were arrested and jailed. The most popular drinks in the People’s Republic of Poland were liquors made from caraway, anise, barberry, mint, blackberries and ginger. Other drinks included hunter vodka, peach brandy, pear brandy, juniper vodka and many others.
Today, the best-known homemade alcohol may be plum brandy from Lacko in southeast Poland.
First the drinker notices the tempting smell of the plums. When he drinks a glass, he feels the fire in his mouth and a great flavor as well. Then the delightful warmth spreads into his body.
“Plum brandy gives vim and blushes cheeks,” a label says. But one has to be careful how many glasses he drinks. The sweet homemade brandy is 75 percent alcohol.
In 1992, the heritage conservator (a person who is responsible for the preservation and renovation of monuments) acknowledged the Lacko brandy as a national cultural landmark.
According to documents dating to 1698, the brandy story begins with the people of Lacko growing plum trees.
Serfs picked the plums and delivered them to the manor, where the fruits were used to produce alcohol. Lacko’s golden age began in 1882 when a Jewish family rented a parish ground and built a distillery.
From 1882 to 1912, Samuel Grossbard owned the company. In 1912 a record 15,000 liters of plum brandy was produced.
The brandy was delivered to neighboring shops with a label certifying it as a high-quality drink. From 1960 to 1980, Henry Maciuszek and Joseph Biernacki, headmasters at the local primary school, created the distinctive labels. They can still be seen on the web site: www.sliwowica.net.pl
On a nationwide scale, the quality of Lacko brandy became well known thanks to Inkas Ferber, who married Grossbard’s daughter. Ferber used only the best fruits and well-made equipment, including oak casks in which the brandy matured.
At that time, alcohol was exported mainly to Palestine.
When WWII broke out and Jews were arrested, alcohol production collapsed in Poland. But soon after the war ended, people started to make their alcohol again.
Since 2004, the process has been celebrated at the European Fest of the Plum Brandy and Picking Fruit.
The biggest attraction of this day is a stand where everyone can see the process of plum brandy production. According to a 2006 Polish law, producing plum brandy ? as well as other homemade alcohol drinks ? is a crime unless the distillery is properly registered.
Franciszek Mlynarczyk, mayor of Lacko, has helped write a law that proposes the production of homemade alcohols.
“Our fruit growers produce 5,000 liters of plum brandy a year,” Mlynarczyk told Dziennik. “The Internal Revenue wants me to denounce the people who produce the brandy. The police do nothing because in Lacko everybody knows each other.”
Actually, the Ministry of Agriculture and Finance organized a commission to prepare the rules of production and retail trade for the home-made alcohols.
However, the act to legalize domestic alcohols hasn’t been enacted yet.
That’s why homemade Lacko brandy cannot be bought at a shop.
Jacob, a college student from Lacko, said: “Only trustworthy people who know the right time and place can obtain a bottle. It costs 45 to 50 zloty.”
Opponents of legalization of homemade alcohols say they are dangerous to health. In comparison to national companies in which there are some quality controls, the lack of standards for homemade production is the main cause of concern.
Even good bootleg vodka may contain some alcohols that are said to be carcinogens, or cancer agents.
There is also a possibility of methanol contamination. Methanol even in minimal concentrations can cause blindness and death.
However, plum brandy gourmets hope that the government, following a Balkans example where homemade alcohol is legal, will legalize it in Poland. Then there will be no obstacles to buying it in the shops and feeling from time to time that fire in the mouth.