Żubrówka, an artisinal Polish vodka flavored with rare wild “bison grass,” has long been a hit across Europe. It’s finally stampeding its way to the U.S., with a shortened name and FDA-approved list of ingredients.
This is not just another flavored vodka. Herbal, sweet and greenish in color, Żubrówka has been part of Polish culture for centuries and its mystique is tied up with the area where the grass grows, the Bialowieza Forest, a primeval preserve. The last remaining herds of European bison (cousins to the American bison) live here and have a fondness for the grass that flavors Żubrówka.
The vodka itself is named after the bison (żubr in Polish), with an image of one on the label, and each bottle contains a stalk of the bison grass — the reason it was banned in the U.S. until recently.
The grass that gives it its unique taste contains coumarin, which is prohibited by the Food and Drug Administration. In order to launch Żubrówka on the U.S. market and win the FDA's approval, its distiller, Polmos Bialystok, had to reformulate it without the chemical, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Żubrówka’s marketers decided that its full name might be too much of a mouthful for Americans, so it has been launched as “ŻU” instead. They don't have a U.S. website for ZU, just a Twitter and Facebook presence to build word of mouth.
Luckily there is that bison on the label, so the new name, which Americans will probably pronounce as “zoo,” might just work. We have to say that it’s much better than when Budweiser Budvar changed its name to “Czechvar” for the American market.
Obviously the drink’s boosters are hoping that Żubrówka by any other name will taste as sweet. Whatever you call it, we suggest mixing it with apple juice for the authentic experience.