There is something so alluring about the forbidden. Doesn’t much matter what it is. If it is off limits, it intrigues us. The promise of an experience unknown to the masses always tempts us to take that road less travelled, often in spite of our best intentions or the consequences. Ever since Eve decided she wanted to know more and spent a pleasant afternoon with that serpent and the fruit plate, we have been chasing the things denied to us. So, with a nod toward a sin that hardly seems original, won’t you join me now as we stand and make the Tatanka.
What do we do with experiences that were once taboo, immoral or at least illegal, when they are suddenly accessible? Do they lose a bit of their charm when anyone can participate? Some say it is the degradation of our society, others would argue that it represents a more enlightened view on vice, but the simple fact is, there are a lot of things in our modern life, that were restricted not all that long ago. From that old devil weed, to absinthe, to voting rights for women and minorities, the times they are a changing. Thank goodness. I am all for it, but there is a bit of charm that is lost when things emerge from the underground. This drink features an ingredient that up until recently had a not quite clear legal standing in the US, bison grass vodka from Poland. It’s one of those things you could not import here, but once you had it, well, whole liquor cabinet is getting raided anyway.
If you could take out your pencils and make some notes, we need to have a quick lesson before we get started mixing. The subject of today’s lesson is Żubrówka, also known as Bison Grass Vodka, made in Poland by Polmos Bialystok Distillery. It’s an old recipe going back some 400 years, a rye vodka flavored with a grass favored by the European Bison. For it to be Żubrówka, it must be made in Poland, using hierochloe odorata harvested from the Białowieża Forest. I only have a lot of history one this drink, it is a traditional thing with its origins lost to history, I guess. The name, Tatanka, comes from the Lakota Sioux word for Buffalo or the American Bison, cousin to the European bison that feed on this uniquely flavorful grass that gives the vodka it’s color and flavor.
Yeah, it’s special stuff. The problem is, bison grass has a high level of the chemical coumarin, which imparts its flavor during the distillation and infusion process. Great flavor, awesome! Right? Nope, coumarin is on the list of banned subject for importation to the US, so the thing that made it wonderful is why we can’t have it, like usual. Coumarin is a natural blood thinner and can cause liver damage in some people with a high sensitivity, so those are bad things. It was once thought to be a carcinogen, in high doses, but that has been discounted in recent years and is used in some rat poisons. Scary, huh? It’s also present in most of the cinnamon you buy, adds wonderful vanilla like flavor to dishes and drinks around the world and is used in spices by other countries without great harm. Still it is on the list so, no tonka beans, knockoff Mexican Vanilla or Żubrówka for you.
There were always some fakes out there, but the real stuff was liquid gold, at least in the US. Polmos Bialystok, created a new formula for the US market in 2005 that uses other flavorings rather than infusion of bison grass to give the vodka its traditional light green hue and unique flavor, full of lavender, vanilla and cut grass. This “clean” version was approved for our market in 2010 and has been relatively easy to find since then. I haven’t had the new formula, but the original is heady stuff. In his 1944 The Razor’s Edge, author and famed suite owner, Somerset Maugham said this pale green elixir “smells of freshly mown hay and spring flowers, of thyme and lavender, and it’s soft on the palate and so comfortable, it’s like listening to music by moonlight.” That’s actually fairly apt and I know cause I have had a bottle of the good stuff hiding in a closet since around the turn of the century.
I always sort of hate those cocktail recipes that call for Unicorn Tears or some other impossible to get ingredient. I saw this US legal version at the liquor store the other day, I figured it was accessible enough for us to make this classic drink that is most people introduction to this liquor. Grab your tins and pop in 2 ounces of Żubrówka Bison Grass Vodka, use the legal stuff if you must, but doesn’t my old bottle look wonderful back there. To that add 2 1/2 ounces of apple juice and 1/4 ounce of lime juice. Toss in some ice and shake well to the beat of one of Chopin’s Nocturnes, I’d suggest “Opus 9, No. 2 in E flat” played by Arthur Rubenstin, but you do you. When well chilled strain over ice in a rocks glass and garnish with some slice apples and a single bead of bison grass, or do like I did and just toss a dehydrated lime in there because you forgot that the kid ate your apple.
This drink is delightful and refreshing. I know it is weird to have a vodka with flavor, but that delicate lavender thing hangs there above the vanilla and combines in a way with the apple and citrus that reminds me of a fresh baked apple turnover. Not the taste, but the smell, just before it comes out of the oven. Cinnamon and vanilla and comfort. Yeah, it’s that good. All served over ice, perfect for cooling off on a hot day. This is one of those you could make all summer long and sit on the porch sipping as you watch the sunset.
The first time I tasted Żubrówka, we drank it straight, ice cold from the freezer and I was charmed by it’s delicate flavor. I did not really want to try it with anything else, until I discovered the Tatanka. This is a traditional drink that goes way back and honestly, I should have been enjoying it more often. But, like the dragon I am, I have been hoarding my secret contraband vodka, dreading the day when it was no longer in my cave. I do that too much. I am terrible about holding on to things, not actually enjoying them, because I am too busy protecting them. I’ve got to work on that. As I have been working through cleaning up more and more of my grandfather’s hoard, I am often saddened finding some piece of ephemera that he put up, in case he needed it. Stuff that he saved, good stuff, that I am now piling on the ashbin of history, as it were. So, use your stuff, enjoy it with friends, you never know when they will be gone, leaving an old bottle without a label and some grass inside to be poured down the drain. Just another piece of personal history who’s story passed out of memory. Stay safe, stay hydrated and stay sane, my friends.