Żubrówka

Last night we saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, a rather fanciful and enjoyable movie. Going into it I said to my wife that the only things that I knew about it (aside from the cast list) were that it probably involves a hotel and probably takes place in Budapest. Well, I was half right. Don’t always trust appearances… the hotel is actually on a mountain in a fictitious central European country (somewhat reminiscent of the Czech Republic and Austria) called Zubrowka.

Naturally, today I went and bought a bottle of flavoured vodka.

No, there is no flavoured vodka consumed in the movie (not that I noticed, anyway). The name of the country is the name of a flavoured vodka. Or, rather, is very very like the name of a flavoured vodka. The actual name of the vodka is Żubrówka. That’s a Polish word, and it’s pronounced “zhoo-broof-ka” /ʐu ˈbruf ka/.

Sorry, does that not look like how the word would be pronounced? Don’t always trust appearances. It’s perfectly consistent with Polish orthography. Do they pronounce it the same in the movie? Actually, they don’t pronounce it in the movie; you just learn it in titles setting the scene. And there are no diacritics on the letters in the movie. Funny – they would have made it seem more foreign. But might have made it too exactly like the vodka name. (I don’t know if there was any arrangement between the makers of the movie and the makers of the vodka.)

So what flavour is Żubrówka? Buffalo grass – or should I say bison grass. Every bottle of it has a blade of bison grass in it. It’s called bison grass because European bison like to eat it. The name for Europan bison in Polish is żubr. The rest is derivational affixes making it about the grass rather than the beast. The vodka gets the same name. I’m giving it a capital because, in spite of its having been consumed in Poland for quite a long time, it’s trademarked.

Oh, you don’t know what bison grass tastes like? Well, going by the vodka, it’s pleasant enough, and curiously familiar; it makes me think of vanilla and chamomile and similar anodyne and soporific herbals. Look, just because bison are large brutish horned hairy beasts worth of a Yeats poem, it doesn’t mean they like nasty flavours. Yes, I suppose to naïve ears “zhubroofka” might sound like a threat of violence uttered through clenched teeth on steamy breath in a cold place, but the only cold place involved in this case is my freezer, where I keep my vodka.

And bison may seem the size of trucks, but they’re not inevitably truculent. Usually they’re quite placid. Quite unlikely to drop from a stroke, I’d say. Especially since they’re eating all that bison grass. Aside from having a soft, sweet flavour, it happens to have coumarin in it, you see, which is an anticoagulant. Which is why real Żubrówka has long been unavailable in the US, a fact of which I was unaware because I live in Canada and that’s where I’ve always bought mine.

That’s also where I’ve seen bison, which we usually call buffalo. We have bison in Alberta, where I grew up. I grew up on the Stoney Indian Reserve (my parents worked there; we are not members of the Stoney tribe). They have a buffalo paddock. They also have quite a few other things. Including bison grass. But they don’t call it that. The North American name for it is sweetgrass. And I first tasted and smelled it as a small child, long before I ever heard of Żubrówka. Such a foreign-looking word, and such a homey, curiously familiar thing. Don’t trust appearances…

So I am drinking a toast to a charming movie with a star-studded cast. The cast really is quite admirable. Regrettably, the movie rather fails on the Bechdel test, but its two most notable female characters are played by two redoubtable actresses: Tilda Swinton and Saoirse Ronan. Are you wondering, by the way, how Saoirse is pronounced? Like “seer-sha.” Hey, it’s perfectly consistent with Irish orthography. Don’t always trust appearances… I do wonder, come to think of it, whether that wouldn’t be a good name for a liquor…

3 responses to “Żubrówka

  1. It was the Swedes who introduced me to Zubrowka while in school in Krakow. It isn’t actually available in the US (it might be available, like many things Polish, in Chicago where the historically large Polish population has long had a separate and special relationship with Poland). The importer fought a decade long war with the US FDA to gain approval. What is sold in the US is made in Poland but the color and flavor are both produced artificially using FDA sanctioned synthetic chemicals while the grass has its roots removed and all distinguishment bleached out before going in the bottle. A piece of grass, according to the FDA, is a greater threat to the US than agave worms from Mexico that adorn every bottle of cheap Mezcal.

  2. Just finished a bottle myself. Need to pick up a replacement bottle when I am in Warsaw later this year.

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