Recently, one of my friends brought me back a couple of bottles of VWFRR from a store that is in a part of CO that I have never been to. Although he is not a big bourbon drinker, he was patient in describing what else he had seen. The one that piqued my interest was a bottle that he considered buying for himself because he thought that it looked cool.
It is a bottling of Buffalo Trace that has the Bison logo on the back of the bottle in a manner where it is meant to be seen through the whiskey from the front. He thought that it read "Limited Edition". Any thoughts on what this might be?
I am curious as to whether this is a special whiskey or a special package.
Most likely a "buffalo grass vodka" from Poland.
Name Your Poison: How a Banned Polish Vodka Buffaloed Its Way Into the U.S.
With a Potentially Toxic Chemical Removed, Liquor Flavored With Bison Grass Heads Stateside
By DANIEL MICHAELS
Distillers here have the American spirit-vodka from where the buffalo roam. But this cocktail has a twist: It's banned in the U.S.
Now, after nearly a decade of work on two continents to formulate and brand a legal version of the alcohol, its producers are taking a shot at the American market. The booze, called Zubrówka, is unusual because it is flavored with a rare, pungent wild grass enjoyed by European bison. Each bottle has a blade of the grass in it for the drinker to admire.
Bison grass grows in one of Europe's most remote and pristine corners, in and around an ancient forest that straddles the border with Belarus. The vast primeval woods, protected by a special United Nations designation, are home to one of Europe's last herds of bison, which are cousins of the American buffalo.
Zubrówka has been a Polish national drink for centuries and a cult favorite internationally for decades. But in the U.S., it's taboo because the Food and Drug Administration prohibits a potentially toxic chemical that occurs naturally in bison grass, coumarin. Until recently, only a few black-market bottles were available, mainly in the Polish neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Chicago.
"It was something like forbidden fruit," says Katarzyna Plonska, export marketing manager in Warsaw for Central European Distribution Corp. CEDC, a U.S.-based alcohol producer, owns the sole Polish distiller allowed to use the Zubrówka name, Polmos Bialystok.
Zubrówka boosters say outlaw status put their vodka in a league with absinthe, a liquor long banned in the U.S. and other countries because of health concerns about a chemical in it, thujone. Thujone-free absinthe is now available in America.
Chemists at Polmos spent years struggling to concoct coumarin-free Zubrówka that tastes like the original. Around 2005 they hit on a blend that they're keeping secret.
CEDC began limited sales in the U.S., but marketing Zubrówka proved thorny. Low-quality knockoffs without coumarin have been available in America for many years, sullying Zubrówka's name. The name itself also complicated branding. While the word is less daunting to foreigners than many Polish words are, "American people can't remember it," says Ms. Plonska.
Marketers hit another problem: The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office years earlier deemed "Zubrówka" a generic type of liquor, like gin, and not linked to a specific company. "We spent a great deal of money on attorneys trying to explain to them that, no, this is a brand," recalls Rich Roberts, a vice president at CEDC in Washington. In 2007 he stopped trying.
But Mr. Roberts couldn't stomach promoting a name he didn't own. He also assumed American drinkers would shorten it, the way Russia's Stolichnaya vodka became known as Stoli. So he sat down and listed every contraction of Zubrówka that sounded possible, including Zubu, Zub and Z. To be safe, his trademark lawyers checked what could be registered.
The winner was Zu. The pun on "zoo" is intentional, company officials say, though the z in Zubrówka sounds in Polish like the g in "espionage." The whole name is pronounced zhu-BROOF-ka.
"It's a fun way to invoke the bison and the natural element," says Michelle DeFeo, vice president for champagne, wine and vodka at the American arm of French drinks giant Rémy Cointreau, which last year teamed up with CEDC to sell Zu in the U.S.
To immerse American marketers in Zubrówka before Zu's launch in November, Ms. Plonska toured Polmos Bialystok with Ms. DeFeo and six colleagues. The self-named "Zu Crew" then visited Bialowieza Forest, where the bison and their herbaceous treat live.
"I assumed it would be a big field of grass," says Katherine White, Zu brand manager at Rémy Cointreau in New York. She and the group woke early on a cold, rainy September morning to stalk the elusive plant, which sells for about $1,000 a bushel.
Only a handful of locals know where to find the grass, when to pick it and how to dry it for maximum flavor. An expert explained how the grass grows as individual blades that hug the ground-not as vertical bunches that are easily spotted-and is distinguishable mainly by telltale whiteness on the underside.
"It was a real aha moment," says Ms. White, who has traveled widely but says she was still impressed by the area's unspoiled nature.
Bialowieza is Europe's largest wood that has never been deforested. The U.N. in 1979 designated it a site of world-wide cultural significance. Poles call it the country's "green lungs," and its unspoiled beauty confers on Zubrówka an extra whiff of purity.
The U.S. ban therefore seems that much odder to Zubrówka fans. The FDA forbade coumarin as a food additive in 1954. It can act as a blood thinner and may be mildly toxic to the liver and kidneys. It is used in rat poison. But it also occurs naturally in foods including strawberries and cherries.
"I never understood the federal ban," says Andrew Bak, brand manager at Adamba Imports International, a distributor of Polish foods in Brooklyn that has sold its own Zubrówka for many years. Mr. Bak says obeying U.S. law "was just a matter of a chemist extracting the coumarin." He says the flavor of his blend is indistinguishable from the original Zubrówka.
Agnieszka Balaban, a Pole living in New York, says most Zubrówka available in the U.S. before Zu was "low quality and not as good as the real one" from Bialystok.
Ms. Balaban, who runs a caterer called Vodka Party, says she's excited about Zu because Zubrówka is a hit at her events, but getting bottles has been impossible for her clients. Her husband, Witold, a Zubrówka aficionado, says he can't taste a difference between Zu and the original recipe.
Back in Bialystok, locals are proud of reaching America, but some purists are wary. "Something is missing; it's like a light version," says Zdzislaw Janowicz, owner of liquor store Alcohols of the World. "The real one is something special," says Mr. Janowicz, who tried Zu in Chicago. "It has the smell of the forest."
Fun fact: coumarin was the flavoring drug found in many cigarettes until the late 90s. When the US government went after big tobacco in a big way, it was banned from cigarette use as well.
I doubt it would be Zubrówka, we have plenty of that over here and its clear with a greenish tinge, also there is a long blade of grass in every bottle so you would notice that!
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