Growing up with Polish immigrant grandparents, I had a lot of ideas what I would encounter when I actually had a chance to visit “the motherland.” Prominent themes featured in these fantasies were food, alcohol, and babushkas. When I finally visited Warsaw over Christmas, I was not disappointed in any of these departments. It would take a small novel to describe all of my experiences, so I’ll start with something near and dear to my heart…booze. Lucky for me one of my Polish friends runs his own pub, many others are bar tenders, and pretty much all highly enjoyed a night of getting drunk with “the American girl”. They were kind enough to introduce me to some of the following…

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Hot wine: You will find this all over Europe during the winter, but it’s one of my favorites. In Poland they use red or white wine and flavor it with things like cinnamon, cloves, vanilla, orange, and honey. It is absolutely delicious and wonderful to warm up after walking about in the -20 degree days you might often find in the harsher months.

Inventive ways of drinking beer: While specific brands of Polish beer may not be as well known as say, Austrian or German beers, they certainly have discovered a plethora of ways to make it tastier. My personal favorite is piwo z sokiem, or beer with juice. It’s not really juice but actually more of a thick, sweet syrup (think like the Torani stuff you find at coffee shops). You usually have a choice between ginger and raspberry/black currant. During the cold months you can find piwo grzane, warm beer with cloves, cinnamon, and honey. Warm beer at first sounds pretty disgusting and I still haven’t fully made up my mind about it, but I advise trying it and discovering it for yourself.

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Vodka: I’m usually more of a gin girl myself, but Polish vodka is an entirely different animal than the gross, rubbing-alcohol-esque nastiness I’m used to consuming in the states. You will find yourself wanting to sip it, not pound shot after shot immediately chased by sugary colas. Try Żubrówka. It has a bison on the label and a long blade of grass in the bottle. It’s made in Białowieża, a protected national forest on the Polish-Belarussian border and the last European bison reserve. Another favorite of mine is Żołądkowa Gorzka. Literally “bitter vodka for the stomach,” my Polish flat mate in Budapest made me drink it when I complained of bad digestion. The brew is sweet, made with honey and herbs. The amber colored liquid surprised me with its tastiness and I believe actually did make my stomach feel much better. It also comes in a delicious green form, made with mint. Finally, you will want to try Wisniowka, or cherry vodka. Even after a night of so much alcohol that I swore off drinking, I was tempted to have just one sip of Wisniowka. This turned into us passing around two whole bottles as we sat chatting in my friend’s place.  There are many, many more brands and varieties of vodka, but besides the fact that this would turn into a short novel, I unfortunately didn’t get to taste all of them.

Homemade stuff: I suggest never to refuse a shot of something made by someone’s mom/uncle/grandparents/etc. Some of the best things I have had exist in my head as nameless dream shots that I can only hope to encounter again in my lifetime. My friend’s dad makes a wonderful kumquat spirit that he so graciously offered me as we sat up drinking on Christmas Eve. Each homemade spirit you encounter is likely to be entirely different and usually quite amazing.

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Some of these wondrous beverages, however sweet and tasty, can be of a surprisingly high alcohol content. So pace yourself, especially because as far as I can tell, the Polish will try mercilessly to get you as drunk as possible. At least they did with me. I have learned to take a shot for every 2 or 3 my friends take, to freely consume whatever foods and nonalcoholic beverages I find about me, and not to mix too many of the sweet flavors in one sitting. Or you can just stick with good old piwo z sokiem. I tried here to recommend things unique to Poland, though I’m sure many of these can be found through out other Central and Eastern European countries. Tell me some of your favorites, so I might pick them up along the way too!

post by Jackie Clark