“It smells of freshly mown hay and spring flowers, of thyme and lavender, and it is so soft on the palate and so comfortable, it’s like listening to music by moonlight…”
Somerset Maugham on Zubrowka
Listen closely and I will tell you a story. And it will be, without doubt, the best story you will read today and you will carry it with you, close to your heart like a flask of something warming and clear as a forest spring. Yes, some spirits just put me in the spirit to be metaphorical, and this bison grass vodka is one of them.
I have a Christmas tradition, and like most of my traditions, it’s a little un-traditional. You see, I collect Christmas ghost stories (and what, you may be asking, does this have to do with the subject matter of a food and beverage blog, and quite right you are but bear with me, the payoff is worth it). Great authors have written great examples of the genre, from Le Fanu to Dickens, from de Maupassant to Damon Runyon, and of these the greatest is a man of whom you have never heard.
Sarban was the nom de plume of a British diplomat who produced one slim volume of stories in his lifetime, and if you find it, grab it. And if you’re still wondering why, read on past my food and beverage blog subject appropriate digression to read his story A Christmas Story in its entirety, and then you’ll see why my Christmas isn’t complete until I’ve read this and why Zubrowka is near and dear to me and would be so even if it tasted like rotten myaso, which it does not.
It tastes exactly like Somerset Maugham has described above.
It’s an unprepossessing-looking liquid, almost exactly the colour and texture of gasoline, and in each bottle is one long, thin blade of bison grass from the Bialowieza Forest in north-eastern Poland, last refuge of the European bison, the Zubor. If you go ahead and uncork the bottle you uncork, essentially, Spring, the fragrance of forest clearings and wildflowers remaining noticeable even when the vodka is chilled to zero Celsius, which THIS vodka should not be. Vanilla is the dominant note, with hay and a touch of citrus zest, I’d say pomelo since it’s softer than lemon or grapefruit, and some floral notes as well, marigoldish although quite subtle. It’s sweet to the taste, because of the sugar, of course, which can make it challenging to mix if you forget it’s not like regular common-or-garden vodka. I enjoy this on the rocks, but at the urging of the company rep who sent me the bottle (hey, there have to be SOME compensations in blogging for a living, eh?) I asked a bartender of reknown for his best Zubrowka recipe, and marvelous it is, too.
Jay Jones’s Krasinski Cocktail
1.5 oz Zubrowka bison grass vodka
0.5 oz Liquore Strega
2 oz Rhubarb Syrup (fresh rhubarb, sugar, elderflower cordial)
2 dashes Fee Brothers’ Plum Bitters
Shake, strain into cocktail glass. You could, if the rep had sent YOU a promo bottle, garnish it with a tiny blade of bison grass, a packet of which she also sent along, and very snazzy that is too; let’s see your friends try to figure out what it is and then one-up you with “oh, I get MY bison grass from Mummy’s farm up on the Island” not that any of my friends would ever pull that on me.
Jay also suggests a cocktail of two parts cloudy apple juice (also known as cider in places where “cider” doesn’t mean alcohol) and one part Zubrowka, but you hardly need a recipe for that, do you?
Altogether, although this seems like a novelty liquor, you’re going to find that it’s extremely adaptable, interesting and fine enough to enjoy on its own, and likely to prove an esoteric favorite without being perverse or pretentious (Absinthe, I’m looking at you). Just don’t mistake it for regular old vodka and serve it frozen, in a shot glass. This is not the stuff of shooters, my friends.
And so, to the story. This entire tale is bracketed (and punctuated, frequently) with boozes of various types, but the magical story-within-a-story is entirely framed by Zubrowka, consumed in the Russian Consul’s house in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on a roasting Christmas Eve, 1928. Pour yourself something warming and pull up a chair; you’ll want to read the whole thing.