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Moonshine goes deluxe in Poland

Small-batch, expensive versions of traditional homemade fruit-infused vodka is latest trend.

July 01, 2007|Ryan Lucas | Associated Press

LOMIANKI, POLAND — Under a row of pine trees in his yard, Karol Majewski brushes needles off green-tinted seven-gallon glass jugs filled with sweet cherries, apricots and fir shoots steeping in alcohol.

Despite the setting, Majewski makes no mere backyard brew. This is your Polish grandma's moonshine gone luxury, and the latest trend in Poland's drinks industry: small-batch, expensive versions of traditional homemade fruit-infused vodka.

Poles are getting a chance to return to their drinking roots -- if they're willing to shell out higher prices for the brightly colored bottles of nalewki, (pronounced nah-LEV-key).

Majewski launched his handmade Nalewki Staropolskie brand three years ago, and has almost doubled output since, still working out of his home, to 1,770 gallons last year -- which would translate into about 13,400 standard half-liter bottles.

His equipment: a de-pitting machine, a 25-ton press that smells of raspberries, and a small bottling machine.

"With the help of the sun and alcohol, this process reaps the best things from the fruits -- taste, smell, color," Majewski says. "I don't want to mass-produce this stuff. I want to make beverages of the highest class."

After two months, he tweaks the taste with sugar and tucks the jugs in the cellar to mature for at least a year before bottling. "Here you compose a taste like with wine or whiskey," he said.

He exports bottles to be sold in exclusive liquor shops in France and Switzerland, recently signed a deal to sell his products in EU capitals, and plans to sell the beverage in the United States this year.

Unlike mass-market flavored vodkas, which are often colorless and have more of the fiery taste of the alcohol, nalewki are a mellower experience, with richer, complex flavors and a sweeter taste better suited to sipping as aperitifs than drinking by the shot. Majewski's plum cherry has a smoky bouquet, and the ginger lemon honey is intensely sweet.

"It's tough to talk about drinking clear vodka as being a pleasant experience," says Grzegorz Russak, the head of Poland's Regional Products Board and a culinary historian. "It's a pleasure to drink nalewki."

While growing in popularity, nalewki are still just a small niche of Poland's vodka market of about 250 million liters a year.

"Everyone who tries them can taste the difference between mine and industrial productions," said Majewski, a former journalist, record producer and triathlete who made nalewki for friends and family for more than 20 years before deciding to start selling them three years ago.

Poland's bigger drinks makers, such as Polmos Lublin, are going after the handcrafted competition with their own products. The company owns a majority stake in Nalewki i Inne, whose specialty shops sell more than 25 different flavors, including cranberry, blackthorn and wild plum. Polmos Lublin -- a vodka maker -- supplies the alcohol base from its distillery in eastern Poland.

While Stolichnaya and Finlandia make flavor-infused or flavored vodkas, they are distilled differently and aren't nalewki.

When communism collapsed in Poland in 1989, the handful of well-heeled Poles sipped Western whiskies and cognac. Now, many are returning to their native drinking tradition, even as the economy grows more than 6% a year, putting more spending money in people's pockets.

Most of Nalewki i Inne's fruit vodkas cost around $19.50 for a half-liter, while a 350-milliliter bottle of Majewski's Staropolskie brand runs $27. Cheap by Western European or U.S. standards, it's two to three times as much as a plain bottle of vodka in Poland.

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