Handle The Proof: Two Of The Best 'Hard To Find' Spirits
I personally think zubrowka and aged genever are the finest spirits one can drink. But neither are easy to find, unless you travel.
Zubrowka is a flavored vodka generally associated with Poland, where they've been distilling and drinking it for a good six or seven centuries. Pale gold in color, it unfolds leisurely, with sensations of vanilla, heather, almonds and newly mown hay--a gorgeous experience that Somerset Maugham likened to music by moonlight. The floral complexities come from grass found in the Bialoweiza region and its ancient forest, known colloquially as 'buffalo grass' because a herd of European bison kinda like the stuff.
Of course, the U.S. government banned the import of zubrowka. Seems the grass contains a toxin called coumarin which can be released in small amounts into the distillate.
Ironically, the compound in large doses affects the liver.
Some distilleries have come out with an America-friendly version based on the "essence" of buffalo grass--occasionally buffered by those healthy, all-American artificial colors, too. Avoid these, travel to Europe and buy the real thing. But note: do not follow the Polish fashion of mixing it with apple juice. The natives don't always know best and zubrowka is far too beautiful to waste.
Well, the flavors do marry well to apple juice. But first try to savor the spirit. Drink it neat, at room temperature or very slightly chilled.
Nor should you follow the example of friends who, upon returning from a trip to Poland, shoved their bottle in the freezer. It ends up tasting like rubbing alcohol. Neither zubrowka or genever are fun "let's get sloshed" spirits. They are for sipping, for enjoying, for tasting.
Genever is the original gin. A product of the Netherlands and Belgium, it was popular amongst British troops fighting on the continent in the 1500s. The Brits brought it home, shortened its name and introduced different distillation processes and recipes.
But Oude Genever, aged in oak barrels for several years, is softer and more intricate than London Dry or Plymouth styles. Along with the resinous notes of juniper, you'll encounter malty, floral and sweet flavors similar to those of a time-worn single malt scotch. Indeed, the color resembles a watered down whiskey, amber in hue.
Why this is so difficult to find in the U.S., I'm not sure. Genever is lower in alcohol than British gin and it comes in stoneware bottles--collectible, if you're going for a rustic look. Drink it neat, at room temperature.
Wish I could tell you were to find them. I found both at a liquor store in Brussels about five minutes walk from one of the train stations and would route my travels through that city just so I could restock.
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