In a place where "drinks" means "cocktails", "cocktails" means "smoothies", and every neighborhood has multiple "alcohole" shops, it was time to suss out the adult beverage scene. I mean Poland's annual vodka consumption stood at just under 17 liters per head in 2008 and lies in the heart of the Vodka Belt of Europe, the historic home of vodka. So to warm up on a blustery, snowy night, I decided to give vodka a shot. Well about 8 shots, really, and one big, smoky, not-just-for-breakfast-and-hangovers-anymore Helluva Mary. It was the Vodka Tour and I was ready to take a shot at it.
Like the craft brewery scene that's emerged around the U.S., Poland (at least Krakow) has a craft vodka scene. Shops showcasing their "homemade" spirits are popping up all over and keeping vodka in the national alcohol consumption race against front-runner beer and fast-approaching wine. I was more than happy to do my part to help vodka maintain its rightful position. And so, listening to our mellow yet engaging guide Adam talk about Polish social life and share his own personal stories (my favorite being his account of sloppily leaving the bars at 8:00am only to do a walk of shame amidst all the morning Catholic church-goers), our small, bundled-up group mosied from local joint to local joint. First experiencing a classic restaurant with old-fashioned decor and distinctly Polish music piped in overhead. The kind of place that businessmen might have brought their clients back in the day for a proper Polish meal- and are still going there. Presuming we had a night ahead full of stiff drinks, I promptly asked upon the first two shots being set in front of my place setting whether sipping was allowed. It was a definitive no.
Eat Krakow Vodka Tour group
And so the night went. From old-school Cechowa with its pure white rye vodka (egad!) to cozy Gościnna Chata with its vodka proudly made with bison grass to the contemporary Ed Red for their super-spicy version of a Bloody Mary. However, it was a vodka distillery called Szambelan whose quaint ambiance won over my heart and whose potent concoctions overwhelmed my senses (enter the "strong, but not very strong"- according to Adam- shot that practically burned my nose off). My favorites being the cherry-infused (think Vicks Formula 44D cough medicine) and the smoother honey-infused. Both which, to a devoted Pole, would probably be sacrilegious.
Fortunately, to save me from imminent intoxication, authentic food pairings were provided throughout the outing that kept me from bouncing down each side of the cobblestone streets like a pinball. Herring with a sour cream/onions/cabbage mixture, Smalec (lard spread) on bread, and bigos (fermented sauerkraut/meat/mushrooms stew) all made the cuisine cut. And let me tell you, lard never tasted so good. It was one of my favorite nights so far in Krakow and truly a wonder my next day wasn't shot to hell.