Vodka, in Polish wódka, is an old word that originally referred to water with healing properties. Other Polish names include gorzałka (derived from the verb gorzeć, i.e. to burn or to be on fire) and okowita (from Latin aqua vitae, the water of life).
- The history of Polish vodka goes back to the 15th century.
- At the turn of the 13th century, the manufacturing technology reaches Poland, brought here by Arab or Italian merchants.
- The 15th and 16th century are marked by rapid growth of vodka exports to Western Europe and to Poland’s neighbouring countries. Production and consumption grow so much that a tax is levied.
- Kraków, Poznań and Gdańsk are the biggest manufacturing centres in the 16th century.
- At the turn of the 17th century, Polish vodka is consumed in England, Holland, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Moldova, Bohemia, Hungary, across Scandinavia, and in Russia.
- In the 19th century, new technologies and new types of stills come to be used in the manufacturing process – a necessary condition for industrial-scale production.
- Recipes were created and production began of many vodkas that (as brands) have survived until today: Wyborowa, Luksusowa, Żubrówka, Ekstra Żytnia, flavoured vodkas such as Starka, Śliwowica, Goldwasser, Orzechówka, Gorzka, Cytrynówka, as well as a variety of cordials, tinctures, and cherry-based vodkas.
- Spirits of most brands were manufactured following recipes that were developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the inter-war period, the manufacturing technology was much improved, which ensured recognition of these distilled beverages in Poland and across Europe.
- Due to high profitability of vodka manufacturing, in 1924 the state authorities (in an effort to increase revenues) implemented a monopoly on the purchase and sale of pure spirit as well as manufacturing and sale of plain vodkas.
- Manufacturing, production and exports remained privately owned.
- The law also introduced legal limitations on raw materials for production: plain vodka could only be manufactured from spirit distilled from potatoes and grains.
- As the national borders were moved, the territories with many distilleries, manufacturing plants, and rectification plants were placed outside of Poland. Owners of distilleries located in central Poland were dispossessed under the regulations of the land reform laws. At the same time, Poland (the state) gained ownership of distilleries and plants in the territories incorporated into Poland in the west (so-called Recovered Territories, Ziemie Odzyskane).
- In 1944, the National Spirits Monopoly (Państwowy Monopol Spirytusowy or Polmos) was re-established. Polmos had exclusive rights to the production of all distilled beverages, including flavoured vodkas.
- The communist regime found that a legal limitation of raw materials for vodka production to potatoes and grains made it difficult to effectively manage the food economy. The limitation was thus abolished in 1953, which led to deterioration in product quality.
- In the 1970s, as the industry was somewhat de-centralized, the authorities took into account the requests to protect the quality of distilled beverages proposed by production specialists.
- Polmos suffered a serious setback after 1987, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s prohibition-like efforts caused the exports to the Soviet Union to collapse. In 1985, Polish businesses sold 22 million LPA (litres of pure alcohol) to the Soviet Union; two years later, the number was just 173 000 litres.
- In the People’s Republic of Poland (i.e. Poland under the communist regime), distilled beverages were consumed in relatively large quantities. In 1977, a statistical Pole consumed 6.2 litres of vodka, counting by pure alcohol content – and the data only pertain to legal alcohol. Actual consumption was much higher than registered consumption, as moonshine (bimber, samogon) production was common and was generally considered socially acceptable.
- The political and economic changes after 1989 resulted in major changes in the Polish spirits industry too. Restrictions on alcohol imports were lifted, excise tax was introduced, and the state gave up its monopoly on the production of distilled beverages. The state-owned enterprises of which Polmos was made up were gradually privatized. Often, they were sold to globally-recognized international businesses, leading manufacturers of whisky, cognac, etc.
- New brands emerged in Poland, while others disappeared. The structure of alcohol consumption changed too: in the 1980s, distilled beverages with high alcoholic content accounted for 80% of total alcohol consumption, but since the 1990s, vodka consumption has been decreasing, while wine and beer consumption have been on the rise. This appears to be a long-term shift in preferences. The times when vodka accounted for a great majority of consumed alcohol are unlikely to return.
- After the accession to the European Union, Poland became a party to the dispute about the definition of vodka. The debate focused on the raw materials: grains and potatoes (which is the position of the countries of northern and central Europe) or any plant-based material. The 2008 compromise is that the use of raw materials other than grains and potatoes requires clear information to this effect on the label.
- The recent years have witnesses growing popularity of Polish vodka on international markets. It has been steadily gaining favour with consumers in the United States, Japan, Brazil, and Great Britain. Polish vodkas have also been ranked very high in quality competitions.
- Since 2013, a new definition of Polish vodka has been in force. According to this definition, only the vodkas qualify that are made in the territory of Poland out of potatoes or traditional grains (rye, wheat, oat, barley, and triticale, i.e. a hybrid of wheat and rye).