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Zubrovka: a type of vodka flavoured with bison grass (Polish zubr, or latin heirochloe odorata - also known as sweet grass, holy grass, Seneca grass or Vanilla grass) which contains an aromatic glycoside called coumarin, an anticoagulant that is the reason for the drink's current prohibition in the USA - varieties available under this bizarre ruling may be somewhat less than authentic.

Opportunities for hybrid The Simpsons and Street Fighter jokes seldom present themselves - this drink may provide a valuable source.
Pronunciation: Zhoob-roof-kah

Clarification: The word is actually Żubrówka, but since not everyone can see Unicode yet, the "Ż" (which makes the "Zh" sound) has been changed to a Z.

Word etymology: żubr is bison in Polish, an animal considered to be powerful, noble (even regal), majestic and quite endangered - and thus all the more precious. The modifier "ówka" is a female ending that can be tacked on to just about anything and simply makes the object a "thing that is somehow related to the root word," in this case the bison. The capital is used interchangeably, as the drink is a liquor type and a name brand at once.

The Two Parts of the Żubrówka

The thing in this case is vodka. The bison part comes from the unique and aromatic bison grass (Hierochloe odorata) that grows only where the Polish bison graze; this is in the primeval Białowieża Forest (Bee-ya-wo-vyeezh-ah), straddling modern day Poland - Belorussia border. The vodka is preferably a traditional rye, 41% strong.

The grass is harvested by hand in early summer, when it has reached its full height but has not started to yellow. It is then left to dry naturally and cut down to the proper length; once dry, it's sent to the distilleries. The flavor is first extracted by crushing the selected grass (any old or crushed grass is discarded) and forcing vodka over and through it repeatedly. This extract (too strong to be usable) is then mixed in correct proportions with rye vodka until a faint light/green tinge (and the correct taste) is achieved. The result then matures and harmonises in oak casks for several weeks. Before decanting into bottles, a blade of bison grass is added as decoration. Speaking from experience, that final touch does not change the taste - it is not possible to make your own żubrówka by throwing in a blade of bison grass to a bottle of moonshine.

Who came up with that wacky idea?

The story goes back all the way to the 16th century when the Polish government, in its wisdom, decided that distilling was to be allowed freely to anyone, anytime, anywhere. Before the end of the century this particular act was repealed, but not only was the populace quite well attached to its liquor by then, much experimentation had been done with assorted flavorings to what is otherwise a fairly bland (and often quite harsh) alcoholic beverage.

In 1569, the Polish-Lithuanian Accord was signed, making the two countries officially one; travel obviously picked up immediately as a new (virtually) untaxed trading frontier opened up. The far East border of Poland was the last stop on the way for many a trading parties, and as such became a popular resting stop. Tastes and delicacies from that region spread out much faster than otherwise, and Żubrówka's unique and well-balanced taste had no problems in charming travelers. Who passed it on to friends. Who requested more. And so it goes. To this day, the locations of bison grass patches are a closely guarded secret by the folk who live in that region; sadly, the grass does not grow well under controlled conditions (or that just could be the perpetuated myth).

The Taste of Bison (eww!)

The bison grass, as mentioned, is very aromatic and it is alleged that its properties include an aphrodisiac effect, and the only reason the bison isn't already extinct. The tale has a certain romanticism, obviously.

What is true is that the grass lends the vodka a mellow, herbal taste that starts out fresh, moves on to warming and minty, and finishes with a lingering, slightly bitter (but not boozy) aftertaste. It makes a fantastic aperitif, and its light taste will not overshadow the main course. If dining on spicier fare, stick to it as an appetizer and have a beer instead; the taste will probably be too faint. It also makes a great sipping drink (unlike straight vodka which might as well be slammed, for all the degustatory delights it bestows) to be savored. It is slightly similar to both Green Chartreuse and Becherovka, but far, far lighter than the former and somewhat lighter and sharper than the latter; while those two are properly liqueurs, Żubrówka is really flavoured vodka. Serve slightly chilled.

I have also heard that a mixed drink (name varies regionally) that of 1 part Żubrówka and 2 parts tart apple juice is popular amongst the unruly youth; I myself have not tried this seeming abomination, and have no desire to. Those are the correct proportions if so inclined, however.

The Coumarin Debacle

Bison grass in its natural state contains a significant dose of coumarin, an anti-coagulant. The amounts present in original Żubrówka were sufficient for the United States ATF to ban the import of this liquor in the USA in 1978. This led to the invention of certain knock-off brands which not only contain artificial flavouring and colouring but also use potato vodka (cheaper, harsher) as the base; they were however coumarin free and as such allowed for import, sadly. Sadly because as false representations of the drink they probably turned off many potential buyers - alas. Eventually, a coumarin free alternative was developed that did not sacrifice taste, flavor or authenticity, but did satisfy the BATF's requirements. Unfortunately the other type is still more prevalent on shop shelves due to sheer market penetration; hopefully that will change with time.
Sources:
http://www.alcoholreviews.com/SPIRITS/wisent-frame.html
http://www.polishvodka.com.pl/wisent-vodka.htm
Disclaimer: I've only had the real stuff (in Poland) and the fake stuff in the US. I have not tried the coumarin-free Wisent so lauded in the pages above, so cannot comment on its quality. The only info I used from those pages were the dates of events, and some info on the process of flavor infusion.

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