The Ineffable Quality of Good Vodka

I know various Slavic countries vie for the honour of devising vodka. Russia and Poland are perennial contenders. But at least we can say, the drink has a deep spiritual connection to both.

With shifting borders too, the idea of appartenance is less important. Lvov, birthplace of J.A. Bazcewski pictured below, is in Ukraine now. The vodka is made in Vienna due to a complex business history, but follows the ancestral, proprietary method.

A well-written article by Natalia Metrak appeared in January this year setting out all you need to know about House of Bazcewski.

By way of enticing introduction, she states, with ample justice:

If you’re unfamiliar with Baczewski, get ready for a tale of innovative marketing, geopolitics, tragedy and defiance.

Founded by a Jewish family before 1800, the brand became the toast of Europe’s bon ton, quite literally.

Zytnia, in contrast, is rye-based, with its own distinguished history, and still made in Poland. See this account of Polmos, the state enterprise that owned the distillery making the brand since the 1920s.

Possibly Zytnia predates the creation of Polmos, but anyway was well-established before WW II. The website explains that it retains an old-fashioned image, from the Communist era, but is also enjoyed by younger consumers.

Certainly Zytnia is highly respected in export markets especially as the high quality comes at a reasonable price. Super-premium vodka today can fetch prices hitherto associated with rare bourbon or long-aged malt. It is questionable whether quality is in proportion past a certain price point.

Baczewski’s Monopolowa, in the median price class, was bought in London. It can’t be found in Ontario at present but the other was sourced at LCBO.

I sampled an ounce of each iced.

They are rather different despite sharing a grain neutral spirits base. Zytnia is more spicy, you hear the balalaika singing out. The other is creamy and flowing, a guitar gently weeping, or it will after four drinks, say.

It may sound odd especially to those schooled on strong-tasting craft beer or whiskey, but vodka of this quality was once an elect choice of spirits connoisseurs.

In post-1918 Paris, Russian or Polish vodka was novel and had cachet, along the lines of modern art. It was sought by emigrés, artists, salon habitués, scenesters in general. Vodka is still popular in all social circles not excluding the elite, but before 1939 had special resonance, in particular for the avant-garde and “society”.

Apart the exotic aspect for urban France, why was this? Because contrary to today’s conventional wisdom the drink can be very good, and distinctive. It somehow turns a neutral quality into a complex, inviting taste.

How it does that, I’m not exactly sure, but the best vodka brings it off. Putting it a different way, the best of it is not actually tasteless, and has ineffable qualities.

But it must be good. The cheap stuff evokes antiseptic clinics and indelicate treatments, a foreign country to the airy chatter of the salon.

But do limit to one drink, will you, alright, two. Slavic (or other) vodka-fanciers might firmly disagree. Perhaps I’d concur if 30 years younger.






2 thoughts on “The Ineffable Quality of Good Vodka”

  1. Very interesting, Gary, vodka is one of the few spirits I like neat, well with a bit of ice, maybe.

    Do you have any thoughts on the ‘right’ ABV for vodka?

    My experience (limited it must be said) is that the 50% ABV versions have more depth and are smoother (somehow) and certainly have a higher ‘satisfaction factor’.

    All the Best and keep up the good work.



    • Thanks Ben, good notes. 40% or 50% is fine imo, it is hard to find anything in Ontario > 40% though. I’ve seen one at 43%, a Canadian brand, but very few if any over so my experience is limited. Traditionally I think 50% was the norm and it may well deliver an optimal experience. There is of course Polish Plain Spirit, which is GNS at original distilled out proof or very close to it, but really it’s not meant for neat drinking.

      I’ll keep looking for the unusual but we tend to get the tried and true here. That’s why I snatched the Bazcewski when I saw it in London, among other interesting brands. It was in a Polish delicatessen and grocery in Shepherd’s Bush, on Goldhawk Road, not far up from the market.


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