Heart of the Bison

Shrouded in myth, history and global pop culture, we get to the bottom of what bison grass is all about while in conversation with Zubrowka, one of the world’s best selling vodka producers


Celebrated through history, mythology, and in all corners of the world for the strength and virility it was believed to bring those who consumed it, bison grass remains a botanical of cultural significance in Poland today. Having grown for centuries in the Białowieża Forest – now a UNESCO site on account of being the largest remaining part of the primaeval forest that once covered the European plain – bison grass has long been a food source for the European bison that live there. 

During mating season, when the grass is also in its prime, the continent’s largest land mammal eats an abundance of the sweet, coumarin-rich grass, a correlation which, in times gone by, led people to believe this distinctive grass is what gave the bison their strength and vitality. As such, they began to harvest bison grass, dry it in their homes, and use it in brewing and distilling for medicinal purposes. 

Similarly, vodka has been made in Poland for centuries, no doubt long before the first written reference to it appeared in the 14th century. Courtier to the Duke of Podola, Stefan Falimirz, then combined local knowledge with translated Latin manuscripts to create the first Polish encyclopaedia of traditional medicine in 1534. Entitled O ziolach i o mocy ich, or On herbs and their power, bison grass and wodka – literally meaning “little water”– both appeared in this seminal text, tying their stories together on paper for the first time. 

Bison grass-infused vodka is believed to have been drunk by Polish nobility long before it became synonymous with Żubrówka. Originally a folk term referring to two species of grass – sweet grass and forest grass – ‘Żubrówka’ was adopted by the first commercial producer of the drink, and a brand that would go on to become the third best selling vodka in the world. Yet despite these credentials, global brand ambassador, Przemysław Matuszewski, says that to truly appreciate Żubrówka, you nearly have to consider it as belonging to a category of its own; after all, it’s more botanical than most vodkas, and obviously a completely different spirit to gin. 

As he says this, it’s easy to imagine Przemysław behind the marble countertops of Poland’s best bars, restaurants and hotels, where he worked before joining Żubrówka. He’s a pretty cool cat, balancing an air of sophistication with his wealth of knowledge on the process by which Żubrówka is made, and how it’s best enjoyed. In the same breath that he talks about Żubrówka taking the place of regular vodka in the cocktail specs at London’s Café Royal in 1937, he references the history and mythology that Żubrówka emanates from. 

He says that today, the blade of bison grass in every bottle of Żubrówka’s bison grass vodka is both symbolic of the work being done to preserve this part of Poland’s heritage, and indicative of the substantial role the herb still plays in imbuing the spirit with its unique flavour and aroma. Przemysław says that just 20 families are allowed to hand pick and dry bison grass from the Białowieża Forest, a designation that has been even more rigidly upheld since the forest won UNESCO status in 1976.

The grass is dried by natural means, in these families’ own homes, as it would have been centuries ago. They pick the grass at night and in the early morning during spring and summer, and from there, spread the grass out on shelves, and open the window to let it dry. The whole process takes ten days to two weeks, but comes with a price tag of approximately 1,000 US dollars per kilo of dried bison grass. 

Żubrówka buys the bison grass directly from these families, and from there, it’s sent to Bialystok, the only distillery where Żubrówka is allowed to be made. “Whether you pick up a bottle of Żubrówka in Cambodia, Japan, United States, UK, France, Germany or Poland, it has come from the same distillery in Bialystok,” says Przemysław. “Making everything in one place is essential to controlling the quality. We use high quality mixed grain – but mainly rye – and a continuous distillation rectification process to make the spirit. From there we add our own artesian water – never municipal water – so for Żubrówka to be Żubrówka, it must be made using the water source that feeds the Bialystok distillery.” 

Meanwhile, the dry bison grass is added to stainless steel tanks, and boiled in water for several hours – sometimes even as long as two or three days – eventually yielding a dark liquid, known as “the heart of the bison”. Przemysław adds here, that the resulting bison grass essence is likely the very same liquid Stefan Falimirz was making, and referring to in his encyclopaedia, tying the process of making Żubrówka back to defining moments in Poland’s history, and culture. 

Once maceration is complete, the bison grass is filtered using cellulose to ensure none of the grass’s flavour, aroma or colour is stripped away, and from there, it’s added to the spirit/water mixture. The bottled spirit then needs to rest for 60 days, during which time the grass used during maceration is re-dried, and a blade is added to each bottle, by hand, before it leaves the distillery. This final touch is a tradition that inextricably links the product with Poland, Białystok and of course Żubrówka. 

Coumarin, the compound that gives bison grass its distinctive flavour and aroma is also the reason that cocktail specs often call for Żubrówka specifically, instead of regular vodka. The grass carries the distinctive aroma of honey, hay, and almond, and delivers notes of citrus, vanilla, lavender, tobacco and cold jasmine tea to the palate. 

The profile is distinctive, and so striking as to have been memorialised in W. Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel, The Razor’s Edge, where the flavour is likened to listening to music at midnight. More amusing perhaps, is that Wes Anderson’s 2014 comedy-drama, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is set in the fictional country “the former nation of Zubrowka”. Apparently Anderson is a big fan of the drink. 

But beyond Żubrówka’s place in global pop culture, is the reality that it still plays a very real part in Poland’s identity and heritage. It is most often enjoyed there in an ‘Apple Pie’, ‘Apple Żu’, or ‘Tatanka’ – a cocktail of Żubrówka bison grass vodka, apple juice and either lemon juice or cinnamon. Variations on the drink which include champagne (a Tatanke Royal) Goldwasser and peach nectar (a Stingray) have raised the profile of this simple cocktail, and placed it among the top fifty in the world. In 1999, The Independent wrote of the Stingray, that while Goldwasser can be swapped out for a vodka of your choice, there’s no replacement for Żubrówka in this drink. 

Przemysław says that the complexity of bison grass also makes it perfect for use in the kitchen, and often makes its way onto the menu of Poland’s most ambitious eateries. He says that Karol Okrasa at the luxury Bristol Hotel in Warsaw has stewed thymus with vegetables in a red wine emulsion and served it with bison grass zabajone. Pawel Oszczyk from La Rotisserie served smoked trout with a salad of fennel, apple and bison grass, and in addition to using bison grass to marinate red meat, Agata Wodja of Opasly Tom PIW, Warsaw, would serve terrine with horseradish, apple jelly, bison grass and flaked beetroot. Przemysław concludes, saying that no matter its use or context, bison grass brings the intoxicating taste and smell of the forest to the table. 

Tatanka Cocktail (also known as Apple ŻU or Apple Pie)

The drink was created in Poland, a very long time ago. As for the name Tatanka, it comes from the Lakota word meaning bison, known from the movie "Dances with Wolves" by Kevin Costner.

The cocktail is prepared by mixing the ingredients with ice and decorating with apple slices or a lemon wedge. You can also add some cinnamon. In some recipes, the juice is replaced with apple cider and pear juice.

An extremely interesting modification of the cocktail is Tatanka Royale, with the addition of champagne and Stingray, whose ingredients, in addition to Żubrówka Bison Grass vodka, apple juice, Goldwasser liqueur and peach nectar.


60ml Żubrówka Bison Grass Vodka

75ml Apple juice

5ml Lemon juice (freshly squeezed)

Ice cubes

Garnish: Apple slice and dust with cinnamon powder

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