Ill.: CEDC International & www.needpix.com, montage: laidbackgardener.blog
If you’re into fine liqueurs, check this one out: Żubrówka Bison Grass Vodka (pronounce the name zoo-BROV-ka), a Polish vodka. It’s a flavored rye vodka, not colorless like most vodkas, but with a faint golden tinge, and offering notes of sweet woodruff, vanilla, coconut and almonds. It’s said to be one of the finest vodkas in the world and is usually served chilled on its own or mixed with apple juice.
And you’ll instantly recognize it by the blade of grass in each bottle.
The grass is said to be bison grass (Hierochloe odorata), żubrówka in colloquial Polish, but you might recognize it under the more common names sweet grass, vanilla grass or holy grass. If it’s called bison grass in Poland, that’s because it’s said to grow in fields where the wisent (European bison, Bison bonasus) feeds. The grass is indeed sourced from the Białowieża Forest in Poland, home to some 800 wisents, and is hand-picked and dried under natural conditions.
However, sweet grass is found growing wild all over the Northern Hemisphere and no bisons need to be present. It is, among others, the sacred grass of the indigenous peoples of Canada and the United States where it is used in smudging ceremonies.
It’s the bison grass that gives the vodka its unique flavor. It contains coumarin, an aromatic organic chemical compound, used as a flavoring agent.
Not Available in the USA
True Żubrówka Bison Grass Vodka is not available in the United States, although the Polish manufacturer now markets a substitute product under the same name for the American market.
That’s because coumarin has medicinal uses (it’s used as a blood thinner) and can be toxic in large doses. As a result, the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) classifies coumarin as a “substance generally prohibited from direct addition or use as human food,” in spite of the fact that it is found in many fruits, including strawberries, cherries, apricots and black currants, none of which are currently banned.
Also, the quantity of coumarin found in bison grass vodka is too small to have any harmful effect, although the alcohol (which, curiously, is not banned, even though it too is toxic in large doses) it contains can have harmful effects if consumed in important quantities, as many of us know first-hand.
But rules are rules, so the Żubrówka vodka company spent millions on producing an equivalent vodka using different legally accepted herbs and launched the new product in the American market in 2011. It still includes a blade of bison grass in the bottle … although it has been specially treated to render it coumarin-free.
True bison grass vodka, with unadulterated bison grass, is, however, available in some 80 other countries worldwide.
Make Sure You Get the Real Deal
Do note that the manufacturer, CEDC International, also produces classic white vodkas under the Żubrówka name, but without added bison grass and in fact, is one of the largest vodka manufacturers in the world.
All Żubrówka vodkas show a bison on the label (it’s their emblem), but only bison grass vodka will actually have a blade of grass in the bottle.
NB. No bisons were harmed in the writing of this article.