Zubrowka, or bison-grass vodka, is made with rye grain and then infused with the flavor of “sweet grass” or Hierochloe odorata in Latin, from the primeval Bialowieza Forest. The vodka is 40 percent alcohol, is greenish yellow in color and has an herbal sweet taste. The vodka’s flavor is a result of the infusion of one or two kilograms of bison grass per one thousand liters of vodka. Then, a long blade of this grass is typically placed in each bottle. Hierochloe odorata contains coumarin, a naturally occurring chemical which was originally used to flavor tobacco and cakes and has been found to display various medicinal properties, such as a blood thinner. Zubrowka contains only about a dozen milligrams of coumarin per liter.
Zubrowka’s origins date back to the eighth century when someone had perhaps accidentally combined alcohol with medicinal herbs. There is still much debate as to whether it originated in present day Poland or Russia since discerning this truth is made difficult by the frequently changing borders in the region throughout history. By the 16th century there were approximately seventy-two herbal vodkas. Rye, buckwheat and oats were used to create the vodka. Its impurity was masked by different spices, herbs and roots. Zubrowka itself became popular after the Polish-Lithuanian accord in 1569 when the Polish royal court would rest at varoius hunting lodges in the Bialowieza Forest on their way to the northeast. Zubrowka first became widely distributed by the J.A. Baczewski Liquor and Liqueur Distillery in Lvov in the seventeenth century.
The grass from which the vodka is made is especially liked by the European bison that roam the Bialowieza Forest. The bison, or zubr as they are called in Polish, have attracted much attention. From the 14th century onward they were some of the only remaining wild bison herds on the European continent until 1919. Efforts were made in the 1920s to introduce bison from zoos and private refuges into the Bialowieza Forest and today there are more than three hundred. The historical and cultural significance of the vodka has not surprisingly created strong reactions to protect what is considered by Poles to be a uniquely Polish product.