Posted on | July 18, 2013
Written by | Kristen Wolfe Bieler
ZU Vodka—now part of Russian Standard—takes off in bars across the country.
ZU Vodka is not a straightforward sell-in. Though technically a flavored vodka, the enchanting spirit has little in common with that category—think of it more as a stand-alone spirit that can’t really be compared to anything else on the market. For this reason, among others, bartenders are naturally gravitating to it, especially now that the word is getting out.
“Our job is to create awareness for ZU Vodka—how unique and versatile it is,” explains Russell Pareti, Director of Marketing for Russian Standard, which now manages the brand in the U.S. as of February. ZU—as Zubrowka is called here—is a natural fit for Russian Standard, Pareti adds: “It’s an artisanal, handcrafted pride-of-Poland brand, which is exactly what Russian Standard is in Russia.” Getting the trade familiar with it takes time: “This is not something you can sell in two minutes; it’s a discovery brand that takes a lot of education because there is nothing else like it.”
Polish and Proud
“I have Polish roots so I have known this brand my whole life,” says Daniel Undhammar, Global Brand Ambassador. “I remember my grandfather sipping it neat or with apple juice in the traditional fashion when I was a child.”
What began hundreds of years ago as an infusion designed to mask the harshness of the local spirit evolved over time into Poland’s most beloved drink and its most unique contribution to the world of spirits: vodka flavored with bison grass.
In Poland’s primeval Bialoweza Forest, European bison have fed on this unique grass for centuries. There are only 400 animals left grazing today and Zubrowka is the only distillery authorized by the Polish government. Hand-harvested by 21 families, the bison grass is intensely aromatic and reminiscent of almonds, vanilla, marzipan, coconut and freshcut grass. The distillery dries the grass and macerates with five-times distilled Polish rye spirit. “We use golden winter rye, which delivers a rich flavor profile,” explains Undhammar.
The spirit takes on a faint green hue, and at the end of the bottling line are three Polish ladies who place a single blade of bison grass into each bottle.
Proof in the Cocktail Glass
ZU Vodka is easily one of the most versatile, mixable spirits out there (the brand is mentioned in a number of historical bartender books, such as the 1937 Cafe Royal London cocktail book). “I love watching bartenders engage with the brand. They take a sip, then go to the back bar and start picking out things to mix it with,” says Undhammar. It works in simple drinks—with a splash of ginger ale and touch of bitters.
1¾ oz. ZU Vodka
½ oz. St. Germain
¼ oz. Ilegal Mezcal
1 strand of thyme
Dash fresh lime juice
Shake all vigorously,
Bartenders are also deconstructing classic cocktails and building them back up with ZU Vodka. “One mixologist did a twist on The Aviation. He replaced gin with Zubrowka, replaced maraschino liqueur with St. Germain then kept the crème Yvette and fresh lemon juice and named it ‘The Howard’ after Howard Hughes—it’s stunning. Because of its fresh, herbaceous quality, it is ideal in bright spring and summer cocktails, but also works beautifully in place of rum or whisky in more savory winter drinks,” says Undhammar.
“A bartender’s job is to create unique drinking experiences that wow their customers, and ZU helps them do that,” says Pareti. “They like good stories about the products they use; they appreciate spirits that have real heritage.” Undhammar provides the dried grass to bartenders who use it to elegantly garnish ZU cocktails—“It’s an incredible tool to connect the consumer with the products origins, and bartenders love it.”
At PDT in downtown Manhattan, owner Jim Meehan and head bartender Jeff Bell have gotten particularly creative with ZU Vodka, concocting signature cocktails that highlight the spirit’s ultra-fragrant, savory sweet profile.