Throughout my travels, I am constantly asked two questions with regard to vodka. The first, what is my favorite vodka? The second question, where did vodka originate? The first question is easy to answer. Without a doubt, my favorite vodka is Polish Starka. The answer to the second question is not so simple.
By now, you are probably asking yourself what is Starka and from where does this unique vodka hail? History has it that Starka Vodka has been produced in Lithuania as far back as the 1400s. With the birth of a daughter, the father would fill an empty wine cask with vodka, apple and lime leaves, and seal it with bee’s wax.
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The cask was then buried in loose sandy soil. Years later, at the daughter’s wedding feast, the cask was dug up, and the wonderful elixir which came to be known as Starka, was served to the guests.
By the 17th century, Starka had become the favorite drink of the Sarmatist Gentry of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The name, Starka, is actually derived from the Lithuanian word, “starkus,” which is associated with birth. In 1991, I was first in introduced to Polish Starka by my friend, the Russian ballet dancer, Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Prior to 1894, there were several types of distilled spirits known as vodka. During the reign of Tsar Alexander II, it was decided that there should be one, and only one recipe for vodka. The Tsar declared a contest to be held to decide on the appropriate recipe for distilling the popular spirit. What we know today as vodka, is the recipe that won. What is unfortunate, many wonderful spirits were lost in the Tsar’s efforts to standardize vodka for tax purposes. Fortunately, Starka was saved due to the efforts of the renown Baczewski family of Lviv (Since the end of WWII, this part of Poland was ceded to Ukraine). The vodka producing dynasty was able to stem the tide, and maintain Starka’s popularity in both Lithuania and Poland. After WWII, and the domination by the Soviet Union, Starka was allowed to be produced only by Stumbras in Lithuania and Polmos Szczecin in Poland.
Lithuanian Starka follows an old tradition which dates back to 1906. It is made with rectified spirits and drinking water put through a six-stage filtration. The result is a spirit that is light brown in color, with a slight burning sensation. There are hints of oak and subtle fruit flavors. These flavors come by way of an infusion of apple and pear leaves. For my palate, Stumbras produces what I would refer to as a Starka-flavored vodka. The alcohol content is 40% with a price tag of $20.
Polish Starka is quite different altogether. It is the quintessential expression of Starka. Polmos is the sole authorized Polish producer of Starka. Polmos is an acronym for Polski Monopol Spirytusowy, “Polish Spirit Monopoly.” The traditional vodka is distilled from natural rye spirit that is distilled twice and no rectification. It is aged in oak barrels with small amounts of apple and lime leaves to add a whisper of flavor to this dry style vodka. Similar to the process of making whiskey, the resulting spirit is altogether a horse of a different color. Along with recipe differences and restrictions, the most notable difference is the aging period. Polmos Szczecin ages its Starka from 10 to 50 years. An important point that makes Polish Starka unique within the market is that its natural color is from long reaction to the oak, and not from additives. The alcohol content is 50%. Prices range from $30 for Starka aged 10 years to $2250 for the Creme de la creme that has been aged 50 years.
Russia has also launched its bid to enter this market, and Russian Starka is easily recognized by its serpentine “S” logo. This version, is vodka aged for 5 years, and filtered through birch, charcoal, and quartz sands. It is then enhanced with the addition of port, brandy, and fruit essences.
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Russians promote this as a spirit meant to be enjoyed chilled. The alcohol content is 43% with a price tag of $35.
In recent years, such countries as Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, and Latvia has also entered the lucrative Starka market. Unfortunately, these countries have preferred the use of rectified spirits and flavored additives. The resulting spirits pale in comparison to the traditional Polish style Starka, and are not sold in the USA.
Now for an answer to the second question that I am often asked, where did vodka originate? It is believed by many historians that vodka was first distilled in the city of Poltava. At that time, the city was under Polish rule. Some years later Poland ceded this territory to Imperial Russia. Today, Poltava lies in the heart of Ukraine. The answer, I suppose, is based on national pride and politics. I doubt that over time, an answer agreeable to all concerned is in possible … “But that my friends, is a different story …”