The European bison can claim the title of Europe’s largest land-dwelling mammal, and its presence has made the Białowieża Forest an EU Special Area of Conservation. But perhaps its greatest claim to fame is being the namesake of a beloved and highly particular Polish vodka known as Żubrówka, or bison grass vodka.
Like many Polish vodkas, Żubrówka is distilled from rye. The spirit is then, however, poured through bundles of dry bison grass, so-called because it is enjoyed by the bison who roam the Białowieża. As the vodka seeps through these enchanted bales, it picks up a litany of subtle flavors alien to standard vodka: Woodruff, vanilla, coconut, cinnamon, almond, lavender and, of course, grass are among the hints detected by those who hath drunk of the forest’s elixir. The process sometimes gives the drink a slightly yellowish tint that is brought out further by the customary blade of bison grass enclosed in each bottle. (Since the area is protected, only a limited amount of the greenery can be harvested every year.)
Unfortunately for some living outside Poland, drinkers can only access bison grass vodka in an altered form that removes the key ingredient. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has banned bison grass because it contains coumarin, a blood thinner that also causes liver damage in rats. In late 2010, Żubrówka was reintroduced to the United States after a ban of more than 30 years, with a revised recipe that removed the coumarin. It still comes with the signature blade inside and some reviewers noted grassy, coconut flavors. But purists say the tweaked version doesn’t achieve the same flavors and aromas as the original. For the real deal, you should head to Poland.