I might get hate mail for this one, but I'm just going to say it: Vodka is a waste of my time and a waste of your time. If I'm looking for flavor from a spirit, I'll look to gin for crisp botanical notes or mezcal for roasted, smoky notes.
I don't look to vodka for anything unless I'm making something like jungle juice, and that stopped happening after college. I especially don't look to whipped cream or salted caramel vodka for flavor. Maybe that's snobby, but I don't care. Vodka is never right. I was happily proved wrong about all this, though, when I first tried Żubrówka.
As far as I'm concerned, vodka is a catch-all term for the usually flavorless base of all other spirits. Before whiskey gets oaky and gin gets all herbaceous, it's just some boring grain alcohol -- a vodka, if you will. Any cocktail you put vodka in could be made more interesting with another spirit, and artificially flavored vodkas have sullied the name of the spirit for most.
But that all changes after a sip of bison grass vodka.
I was up late one night raiding a friend's liquor cabinet when I came across bison grass vodka. He urged me to try the faintly green spirit, letting me know he agrees with my feelings on vodka. I'll try pretty much anything, so I took a sip and -- boom -- flavor. Legit, herbal, sweet, natural flavors.
Bison grass vodka or Żubrówka (pronounced ju-broof-ka) carries a definite grassy, floral flavor that's enhanced with pronounced sweet vanilla and light nutty flavors as well. Technically a bison grass-flavored rye distillate, Żubrówka is common in Poland but was banned in the United States until about three years ago.
The reason for the bison grass ban is because the spirit contained a blood thinner called coumarin, which occurs naturally in items like strawberries and cherries. It wasn't until a few years ago that Żubrówka makers found a way to distill coumarin-free bison grass vodka, much like absinthe producers in the United States were forced to cut the thujone out before it came to America.
With a trademark blade of bison grass floating in each bottle and the coumarin removed, you can now buy Żu's Żubrówka in most local liquor stores for between $25 and $30 per bottle. However, sweet, wispy prarie grasses like bison grass can totally grow in Arizona, so maybe someday we'll get our own locally made bison grass vodka.
Arizona Distilling Co., I'm looking at you.
Though Żubrówka purists say the coumarin-free version tastes slightly lighter, I'm certainly not complaining. I've finally found a vodka I'm willing to spend some time getting to know.
Traditionally, it's served with apple juice in Poland, but I could see mixing it with ginger beer or in a lightly sweet martini. Versatile like a vodka, its herbal qualities make it a candidate for gin cocktails, and its sweet vanilla notes could even make it a substitute for whiskey or rum. As in most instances at your home bar, just start experimenting with what you have on hand and what flavors you typically like and go from there.
(All that said, it's possible that I could be missing the point of vodka entirely, and if someone wants to dissuade me of my notions over a tasting, I'll take them up on the offer. I've been wrong before.)
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