“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





29 January 2012



The Bone Arse Bison Of Poland Knows Much More About Grass
And Losing Weight Than AT&F

“It smells of freshly mown hay and spring flowers, of thyme and lavender, and it is so soft on the palate and so comfortable, it’s like listening to music by moonlight ... "  

W. Somerset Maugham on Żubrówka

For forty years this writer has faithfully believed that Żubrówka is the most perfect of the flavoured vodkas.  Not only is its rye spirit as clean as a whistle, but it has a peculiar meadow-grass freshness and bouquet that most find totally disarming – even those who can’t normally handle a shot of neat liquor seem to sip it tenuously for just a moment before schlücking it down with an aaah, which is followed by a grin

But this hadn't occurred for a very long time: I haven't seen a bottle for many years.  After its long absence from the shelves I normally nudge, I was delighted to find it in a handsome new package in Dan Murphy’s for $40. 

I need to make clear now that I rarely set foot in a Dan’s den to purchase booze: like porn, I go in only for the music and the furniture.

That was a joke.  I don’t go because I can’t abide Woolworth’s, the owner.  It’s the only one of the Oz supermarket duopoly which I hate more than Coles.  These brutes might sell booze cheap, but they destroy everything I love about real Australian wine.

And through their union, the Shoppies, their staff actually run the Australian Labor Party.  Due to their stranglehold on the party, that vacuous Jacinta driving the belt and the crash register may well be your next Prime Minister. 

"Any fly-byes today at all?" she'll arks. Arks Kevin Rudd and Mike Rann, I think savagely to meself.  Have a noice day.

Made by Polmos Bialystok in Poland by distilling rye grain to 40% alcohol, Żubrówka is flavoured with an essence of “the grass much beloved by the Polish Bison”.  This big beast, perfectly named Bison bonasus by Linnaeus in 1758, is the Żubr in the local patois.  More generally, it’s called the Wisent, from the Old Norse Visundr.   
The ancient  Germans used its horns, which are longer than those of the American Bison, to make their helmets look more macho.  Contrary to popular myth, the Vikins preferred to wear raven or sea eagle wings on their hard hats.  Only after decapitating a horn-wearing Hun and sinking a few deep ceremonial drafts from his sköl, would they souvenir his Visundr horns for general drinking.  Priorities, see. 

The Żubr is a tough, slow-looking monster that can stand two metres tall and weigh around a tonne, but can up and leap a two metre fence from a standing start when the mood takes it.  This may be due to it being hunted to extinction in the wild.  The Żubr has only recently been rehabilitated through a careful program of breeding captive stock for release in appropriate country.  Over 3000 roam free today, in assorted wilder lands in north-east Europe.

A healthy Żubr can eat up to 30 kilograms of bison grass a day.  This common plains grass is formally known as Hierochloe odorata because of its beautifully sweet aroma. You really want to lie in it.  For dressing, each bottle of Żubrówka contains a single blade of it.  The essence gives the vodka an attractive straw hue.

I first discovered the relaunched Żubrówka in November, on a tile night in a deadly Melbourne vodka joint called Naked For Satan.   It’s in Brunswick Street Fitzroy, and you’d be an idiot not to occasionally surrender to it.  The next morning I miraculously stepped out of a car to open the gate of the Castagna family’s stunning vineyard and winery at Beechworth, on the northern side of the Victorian Alps. 

Castagna’s our leading biodynamic wine enterprise, and has been since the start.  You’d be an idiot not to surrender there, too, although they make it hard by opening their cellar only one day a year, in November.  Its wines are always amongst the very best in the country.  They often have a peculiarly sweet-herb/meadow-floral aromatic component, which had mystified me. 

So it was miraculous to step out of the renter which stank of the polyvinyl chloride plastic new car smell, which gives you liver cancer, and be hit with an overwhelming whoosh of the smell of Żubrówka: that beautiful sweet rich meadow aroma.  A Żubrówka overdose does not deliver a hangover beyond three Richter and mild dehydration, but nevertheless the overwhelming bouquet of the vineyard and its surrounding pasture seemed miraculous and restorative and utterly, freakishly Żubrówka.  It leap-frogged me straight over Naked For Satan to my childhood in the lush clovers of Gippsland.  Man it was good. 


I said at the time that I nearly sprouted horns and cloven hooves on the spot.  Like poor old General Custer, I could have died breathing it.

For those who came in late, the Battle of Little Big Horn was originally known as the Battle of the Greasy Grass, greasy meaning rich and sweet bison pasture.  Give me greasy grass over little or big horns every time, I say.

The odd faithless detractor suggested I had smelt only my own exhalation upon my egress.  And I almost began to believe them as I scoured the meadows and the vineyard headlands over the next few days, failing to isolate one single blade of anything that looked like bison grass or buffalo grass.  I eventually lost my receptive capacity to detect the aroma, drenched in it as I must have been.  But then we began serious tasting and there it was in the sublime white wines of Castagna and Adam’s Rib. 

Since procuring my Żubrówka, which is in acute danger of expiring tonight, I have nursed a growing curiosity about bison grass, and the sudden reappearance of the vodka, which has been quietly re-launched here in spanking new livery by the distributor, Pernod-Ricard.  

It didn’t take long to discover that it was banned by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in the USA in 1978, because that beautiful aroma and flavour comes from the totally natural phenylpropanoid compound coumarin, which, like water, is not too good for humans or rats when extreme amounts are devoured. 

As well as giving bison grass its perfect aroma, coumarin occurs quite naturally in plants like cinnamon and chamomile – in the appropriate concentrations, humans love it.  We drink it as a calming tonic; a satisfying soporific.  It is used in perfumes as a fixer and an attractant.  But it has evolved in many pasture grasses and clovers to perform the opposite role: in extreme concentrations it becomes a bitter appetite suppressant, and deters many critters from eating the relevant herb, which then has a better chance of survival. 

It’s a bit like the methoxypyrazine, which gives the Sauvignons, blanc and Cabernet, their distinctive grassy edge.  Until the grape is ready for its seed to germinate, it maintains high levels of this bitter agent to deter predators like birds.  But the moment that seed is ready to sprout, the vine turns off its methoxypyrazine production, and instead begins to dump its acid and pump up its sugar to attract those same predators.  Cabernet even changes colour from its camouflage green to an alluring purple-red.  The lucky bird will then devour the berry, and by the time it’s out the other end, it will have incubated and sprouted, thus perpetuating the vine.

Perversely, it is this deterrent which has now ensured what appears to be the eternal life of the Sauvignons.  We perpetuate them by planting them all over the world, so we can drink them while this character is there in the appropriate level: since the deterrent became the attractor, they no longer have any need to sprout.  And we can detect the stuff in parts per trillion.  If you can’t work out what that means, try to grasp the gap between one dollar and a trillion.

I’m sure that in extreme concentrations such a deterrent is bad for humans and rats, just like coumarin. 

Not so with the ATF boyos.  Their banning of Żubrówka lasted until last year, when an artificed placebo called Zu was launched by Remy Martin.  This is rye vodka flavoured and coloured with entirely artificial compounds; even the blade of buffalo grass is not what it seems.  It’s been purged.  Sanitised.  Sanctified and faked for America the brave, a nation which obviously requires no appetite suppressant.

The AFT reckons their war against bison grass arose from the fact that if exposed to certain moulds, coumarin transforms to the anti-coagulant dicoumarol, which causes internal bleeding.  This is why cows can get sick after eating fermented clover, like silage.  Some rat poisons include a synthesized parallel compound, which makes them bleed to death.  The AFT also thought it damaged livers and kidneys.

But the facts?  Taken neat?  Coumarin eases swelling. It shrinks tumours. It seems to scare off the human immunodeficiency virus. It settles irregular heartbeat. It eases asthma and hayfever. It’s analgæsic.  Antiseptic.  It’s good for osteoporosis. Check that skeleton above. And of course the ancients used it for ailments of the kidneys and liver, as if to snub their wise old noses at modern America.

The German government has ruled that coumarin’s tolerable daily intake for a person is 0.1mg per kilogram of body weight, but it makes clear that a temporary excess is of little matter.  A teaspoon of cinnamon contains around 10mg of coumarin, a litre of Żubrówka around 12mg.

So a man 30% bigger than me would need to drink one litre of 40% alcohol Żubrówka a day to reach Germany’s moderate border.  Unless he’s an American, which he most likely would be if he were that obese.  In which case he really needs an appetite suppressant.  Does Monsanto do one?

As for Australia?  I have asked the Sydney-based Pernod-Ricard Żubrówka brand manager which model is sold in Australia.  He hasn’t got back to me yet, but if his news is positive I'm sure he'll be a lot quicker than he has been.  I thought the bottle I've had is more or less the stuff I remember – it reminds me much of the good old oil, and I can see no artifice about its spiritous beauty.  

Confession, however:  I have been tipping this in as a cocktail.  I've been serving it on big rocks half-and-half with cold Ku-Ding stick tea, which is the most efficacious and bitter tea in all of China.  It's on a par with wormwood, which is another subject again, apart from the Pernod-Ricard link, and the little matter of thujone and absinthe.  I love that stuff, too.  But I reckon my Żubrówka/Ku-Ding/lime juice and ice is about the best thing I've tipped in there this year, so it cannot be the Zu.

And it IS labelled “the original bison grass vodka”.  

But so is the fake American Zu.

If we’re getting that shit, I’ll leave my tattered tasting reputation as dead as dumb Custer to rot at the door of Woolies and retire comfortably drinking Castagna and chamomile from Dan Murphy’s sköl.

And no. No Fly-Byes, thanks.  I'm just an ordinary citizen. 

We finally got a response.  Aussie Żubrówka is the REAL DEAL.


Anonymous said...

You might not be the best Whitey, but there is none better !

You sort the wheat from the chaff in just about everything

Remarkable body of work

Anonymous said...

That's World War III: Poland invades the USA with the aid of AT&F. Germany insists it's not worth the trouble. The Vichy Frogs are the arms dealers, and only one guy in Aussie can see the facts. Liberate us please! Mitt Romney

Barossa Sinnick said...

How long will it take for Woolies to produce a fake Castagna? Theyr probably on to it now around at Cellarmasters. Remy would sell the the recipe.

Seattlite Cynic said...

If General Custer has got off his horse, got down on his hands and knees and started to graze, would the next World War still be fought between the Mormons and the Mohammedans?

Ordinary Cynic said...

So WhiteMan, are you saying that Woolworths is conspiring with Monsanto to replace buffalo grass with something concocted by Mormons in a St Louis lab?

KnuckleScraper said...

Custer? That looks like Charlie melton!

Anonymous said...

Any word back yet as to whether we have the original (i.e. authentic) version here in Oz?




Still nothing. I shall try again.



ZU is the US version developed by the Owner of Zubrowka, they changed the name in 2010 for this market. Both products are very similar, but ZU doesn't contain some ingredients like Coumarin which is not authorized in the US. So it is a formula replicating the flavour of Bison Grass for the US. We believe that they developed ZU in the US because or the regulatory issues resulting in the formula not being the same and also due to name issue (pronunciation of Zubrowka and a trademark issue...).

Finally, yes, the Zubrowa sold in Australia is made with Bison Grass coming from a specific region in Poland where there are actual Bisons!