Vodka History from Poland
In Poland, vodka (Polish: wódka), has been produced since the early Middle Ages. In these early days, the
spirits were used mostly as medicines. Stefan Falimierz asserted in his 1534 works on herbs that vodka could
serve "to increase fertility and awaken lust". Around 1400 it became also a popular drink in Poland. Wódka
lub gorzała (1614), by Jerzy Potański, contains valuable information on the production of vodka. Jakub
Kazimierz Haur, in his book Skład albo skarbiec znakomitych sekretów ekonomiej ziemiańskiej (A Treasury of
Excellent Secrets about Landed Gentry's Economy, Kraków, 1693), gave detailed recipes for making vodka
Some Polish vodka blends go back centuries. Most notable are Żubrówka, from about the 16th century;
Goldwasser, from the early 17th; and aged Starka vodka, from the 16th. In the mid-17th century, the szlachta
(nobility) were granted a monopoly on producing and selling vodka in their territories. This privilege was a
source of substantial profits. One of the most famous distilleries of the aristocracy was established by
Princess Lubomirska and later operated by her grandson, Count Alfred Wojciech Potocki. The Vodka
Industry Museum, now housed at the headquarters of Count Potocki's distillery, has an original document
attesting that the distillery already existed in 1784. Today it operates as "Polmos Łańcut."
Large-scale vodka production began in Poland at the end of the 16th century, initially at Kraków, whence
spirits were exported to Silesia before 1550. Silesian cities also bought vodka from Poznań, a city that in
1580 had 498 working spirits distilleries. Soon, however, Gdańsk outpaced both these cities. In the 17th and
18th centuries, Polish vodka was known in the Netherlands, Denmark, England, Russia, Germany, Austria,
Hungary, Moldavia, Ukraine and the Black Sea basin.
Early production methods were primitive. The beverage was usually low-proof, and the distillation process
had to be repeated several times (a three-stage distillation process was common). The first distillate was
called "brantówka," the second — "szumówka," the third — "okowita" (from "aqua vitae"), which generally
contained 70–80% alcohol by volume. Then the beverage was watered down, yielding a simple vodka (30–
35%), or a stronger one if the watering was done using an alembic. The exact production methods were
described in 1768 by Jan Paweł Biretowski and in 1774 by Jan Chryzostom Simon. The beginning of the 19th
century inaugurated the production of potato vodka, which immediately revolutionized the market.
The end of the 18th century marked the start of the vodka industry in Poland (eastern part of Poland was
part of Russian empire at that time). Vodkas produced by the nobility and clergy became a mass product.
The first industrial distillery was opened in 1782 in Lwów by Jan Baczewski. He was soon followed by Jakub
Haberfeld, who in 1804 established a factory at Oświęcim, and by Hartwig Kantorowicz (1823) at Poznań. The
implementation of new technologies in the second half of the 19th century, which allowed the production of
clear vodkas, contributed to their success. The first rectification distillery was established in 1871. In 1925
the production of clear vodkas was made a Polish government monopoly.
After World War II, all vodka distilleries were taken over by Poland's communist government. During the
1980s, the sale of vodka was rationed. After the victory of the Solidarity movement, all distilleries were
privatized, leading to an explosion of brands.
The History of Polish Vodka - Its origin, name and distillation
The first one to feel the bite of pure alcohol on his tongue was probably an Arab alchemist of the eighth century, living
alcoholic brew, appeared in Europe later – we know that alcohol was being distilled from wine in Italy by the 11th
It was called spiritus vini or "spirit of wine." The 13th-century alchemist Arnaud de Villeneuve of Montpelier wrote that it
"strengthens the body and lengthens life." Because of this belief in the blessings of alcohol, it was also known as aqua
vitae or "water of life."
Deep secrecy surrounded the process of distillation, which required special equipment. The secret was known only to
masters of alchemy, who bequeathed their knowledge to their successors, the pharmacists. The famous school of
medicine in Salerno used large amounts of this miraculous medication for all kinds of ailments in the 12th century. The
Franciscan philosopher and theologian Raimundus Lullus called it ultima consolatio corporus humani (the greatest
comfort for the human body).
Spirits reached Poland from Italy or Germany in the 1620s. From there the route led on to Ruthenia and Bohemia. In
Poland, production developed at the end of that century and grew relatively slowly up to the early 1800s, due to the
primitive state of the technology and to the specific circumstances of the market for its base ingredients. Increasing
consumption of vodka was boosted by the invention of ever-better tasting compositions and more varieties of the liquor.
Different customs associated with drinking took root.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the distilling industry appeared alongside home stills and small-scale
enterprises. The large distilleries specialized in purifying spirits and producing drinks made according to their own
recipes. Some of the distilleries operating in Poland today are the direct heirs to these traditions.
How Polish production developed
Large-scale vodka production began in Poland at the end of the 16th century. Distilling developed first in Krakow, from
where spirits were exported to Silesia before 1550. Silesian cities also bought vodka from Poznan, a town which in 1580
had 498 working "spirits boilers." Soon both these places were outpaced by Gdansk, Poland's largest producer of
vodka before the country was partitioned in 1772.
The first distillery in Gdansk was opened by men from the Netherlands. One of them, Ambrosius Vermoellen of Lier,
manufactured the known and valued liqueur named Der Lachs (“Salmon”); his sons Arendt and Peter continued that
tradition. In the early 17th century, distilling grew to such an extent in Gdansk that there was a local shortage of
firewood and the price of the fuel jumped. In 1620 the city authorities began to grant concessions for vodka distillation;
68 producers received and paid for the privilege, and many others functioned illegally.
"Spirits boilers" also appeared more and more often in villages and on the agricultural estates of noblemen. In the
county of Leczyca, for example, there were 151 of them in 1578. It is difficult to estimate the scale of production at the
end of the 16th century but it must have been quite a prospering industry, since proclamations from 1564, 1565 and
1577 imposed fees "for cooking spirits in the villages" and "for running an inn with spirits." It was the first form of excise
on Polish soil.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Polish vodka reached the Netherlands, Denmark, England, Russia, Germany, Austria,
Hungary, Moldavia, Ukraine and the Black Sea shore. This export trade was very important economically, as can be
seen in the Polish reaction when the prince of Moldavia banned the import of Polish vodka in 1779: the rulers of Poland
sought and obtained diplomatic intervention from Turkey, France and Russia.
The early 19th century was a turning point in alcohol production in Poland. Crucial to this were progress in the
technology and changes in the base ingredients. Potatoes replaced grain, and profitability leaped: a gallon of vodka
cost the equivalent of more than two bushels of rye in 1704, but by 1844 a bushel of rye could buy 2.5 gallons of it.
Poland was swept by "distilling fever."
According to official figures, no doubt underestimated, in 1836 there were 4,981 distilleries operating in Galicia, the
Austrian sector of partitioned Poland, producing the equivalent of 600,000 hectoliters (almost 16,000 U.S. gallons) of
pure spirits. In 1844, the Russian sector, known as the Kingdom of Poland, had 2,094 distilleries producing 460,000
hectoliters of spirits. Inn concessions made distilling the economic foundation for many estates.
The great increase in consumption of vodka and the ensuing effects on social behavior and customs brought a
determined response from the partitioning powers in the form of excise taxes. In the course of 30 years the number of
distilleries in Great Poland, in the Prussian sector of Poland, fell from 1,173 to 285. By 1884 there were only 516 in
The Russian czar, disturbed by the ill health of army recruits, introduced restrictions in the Kingdom of Poland: In
addition to a high excise, alcohol sales concessions were established, drinks stronger than 46% alcohol were outlawed,
inn opening hours were limited, and serving alcohol to inebriated persons was prohibited. These actions led to a
reduction in the number of distilleries in the Kingdom of Poland to 569 in 1875. The potato blight which afflicted Europe
in 1843-1851 also contributed to the fall in production.
One effect of administratively imposed obstacles and heavy taxation was . . . the birth of the Polish distilling industry!
The hard economic facts of life meant that the small, technologically backward distilleries on the farm estates had to
close down. The only survivors were the large modern concerns established exclusively to produce spirits.
In 1918-1938 there was a further decline in Polish distilling. In 1910, about 2,500 distilleries operated in the area which
Poland was to occupy after World War I. Together they produced about 2.6 million hectoliters of spirits annually. In the
best years between the wars, the number of distilleries did not exceed 1,486, with annual production of 860,000
hectoliters. Those are the official figures. It is difficult to factor in the share of production from bootlegging. In 1931-
1936, between 3,000 and 5,000 illegal stills were closed down each year.