The Vodka Legacy

Photo: Polish Vodka Museum
While the apparent facts of Polish Vodka are well-known, the history and heritage they represent are less so. Warsaw’s Polish Vodka Museum is changing that.

Warsaw’s Polish Vodka Museum, which opened earlier this year, is a testament to the rich, potent legacy of the Polish beverage which has taken the world by storm. Housed across five floors of the old Warsaw Vodka Factory ‘Koneser’ distillation plant, the museum oozes history: within its neo-Gothic facades, where the flagship brand of Polish vodka – Wyborowa – used to be refined, the building now transports visitors to those very production lines, introducing an untold story of vodka little known beyond the factory floor.

The first steps towards the creation of this museum were made as early as 2004 when representatives from the Polish spirits industry were invited to Edinburgh by the Scotch Whisky Association. Inspiration from a palpable Scottish pride in whisky history, promoted by the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre, prompted the idea to establish a Polish variant. By 2006, when a new Polish law (amended in 2013) officialised geographical vodka identification, interest grew even further.

The decision was quickly made to establish the museum in the ‘Koneser’ plant, a choice based on the world renowned vodka which once emerged from its doors, says Andrzej Szumowski, Spokesperson and the Director of External Affairs for Wyborowa Pernod Ricard, and President of the Board of the Polish Vodka Association since its founding in 2006. The factory was revitalised with the help of 2.5m zł (€585,000) from the European Union and includes elements of the old factory’s design, such as old vodka barrels, alongside modern exhibits. “We felt that we owe to generations of Polish distillers and to the Polish vodka tradition that we should build the museum. And the owners of the Koneser vodka distillery, established during the time of the Tsar, felt it was the perfect place to create the Polish Vodka Museum,” he added.

National treasure

Szumowski has been an ambassador of Polish vodka on the international stage for 15 years, supporting efforts to raise awareness of its lucrative market. The museum follows a lengthy list of his collaborative projects, facilitated by Wyborowa’s own renown: “Wyborowa is the queen of Polish vodkas, the most recognised brand in the world. For example, Mr Wally Olins (British practitioner of corporate branding) was preparing a project looking at how to promote Poland internationally. He said Poland is well known for the three W’s: Wojtyła (Pope John Paul II ), Wałęsa and Wyborowa. He said that Wyborowa is the only Polish brand recognised as such globally.” Yet, in Szumowski’s own words, it is Polish vodka in genculture eral which has saturated “every square inch of ground” on which the museum lies. Its mission is to educate visitors on the definition of Polish vodka and all elements of the Polish vodka industry, explaining the differences between varying types of vodka and their origins, all across a 500-year history.

It differentiates between Polish rye, wheat and potato vodka, with exhibitions on the process of vodka creation, even down to the precise amounts of alcohol produced by different grains, as well as giving a glimpse into the vodka produced over different centuries. It also reveals that only 5-10% of vodka production in Poland are Polish vodkas, exploring the often-contentious national influences over the product. Szumowski himself is fiercely defensive regarding Poland’s role in the vodka industry: “I have bad news for our Russian colleagues – the cradle of vodka is Mother Poland. If we go back to the 16th century, all the good things that happened in Russia were because of imports from the West, and Poland has always been west of Moscow. The first modern vodka distillation factory was built in Lviv, today in Ukraine but back then in Poland in 1782. In Polish tradition, vodka has existed forever – almost forever.”

However, visitors, accompanied by a guide on tours which start every 20 minutes, will also see international takes on the Polish tradition, hearing legendary quotes from Napoleon regarding drinking like Polish men and exploring the Wyborowa bottle design by American architect Frank Gehry.

Na zdrowie (cheers!)

At the end of the tour, there is also an option to taste different vodkas, with visitors given a half-shot of three varieties. Staff suggest novel methods of ingesting the vodka too – instead of gulping, the recommendation is to swill the vodka around one’s mouths like tasting wine, to pick up the flavours. Storing vodka at room temperature, instead of ice cold, is also encouraged.

Aside from the pleasure of testing different Polish vodkas, the museum’s role is an important one in a Poland rapidly gaining international acclaim. Featuring interactive exhibits, a wide variety of historical artefacts and countless titbits of information, the museum will eventually belong to a larger complex in the area, complete with bars, hotels, shops and offices. But it is vodka that remains the foundation for all, as Szumowski explains: “For Poland vodka means heritage, tradition and history. It’s a part of Polish DNA. It’s a part of our culture. We feel very proud and responsible for the history and heritage of Polish vodka, today and in the future.”

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Written by: Juliette Bretan