ZU is a Polish brand of vodka flavored with bison grass, known as Zubrowka, that has been a national drink for centuries. It was previously banned in the US due to a blood-thinning component found in bison grass called coumarin. However, it has now been re-worked for American consumption using a blend of botanicals from the bison grass area, with a very close approximation of flavor of the real deal. A real strand of bison grass, with an allowable amount of coumarin, comes in every bottle.
The spirit has an herbaceous, citrus and marshmallow nose that has more vanilla and honeysuckle on the palate. Think gin, minus juniper. For this reason, it lends itself beautifully to a variety of cocktails from deep, dark bitter to light fruit.
Recently, ZU held a Cocktail Lab at Astor Center to celebrate its launch to the New York market. Guests were greeted with a ZU toddy before brand ambassador Daniel Undhammar gave us a short presentation on Poland and Polish culture. Then he got into the booze mixing, demonstrating two cocktails, one was an Aviator spinoff and the other was fresh grapefruit juice-based, before it was time for the rest of us to play. There was quite the bounty to choose from: tables piled crazy high with a variety of fresh fruits, botanicals and spices and others stocked with a dream bar of liqueurs, vermouths and bitters.
With so much to choose from, it was a bit daunting at first, especially with the level of professionals surrounding me, but I decided to go with a light vs. dark tactic to test the versatility of the spirits. I made what I am calling "The Gypsy ZU Twinkle." It’s kind of a Negroni riff with ZU, Amaro, Punt e Mes, Campari and Bittermen’s Burlesque bitters (hence the “gypsy”) with an orange twist. The Amaro brought out the nutty flavors of ZU, while the Campari and bitters added some spicy zing. This Frankensteined concoction was alive, alive!
Since there was fresh lavender on the offer I decided to take advantage of it, and using my internal slot machine of flavor matching, went for fresh blackberries (the two muddled together), shaken with ZU and a small amount of Disaronno to balance the tartness, poured over ice and topped with Fever Tree bitter lemon soda. The lavender highlighted the vanilla in the ZU, while berries and lemon soda sang with the herbs. Daniel tasted both. Loved Gypsy but wanted to walk off with this one, let’s call it the "ZU Spring Tease" in honor of the short-lived warm weather snap.
Looking around the room, people were having fun: cracking eggs, slicing fruit, trying out new bitters, shaking things up. Soon the impressive Polish feast brought in from Greenpoint was set up with pickled salads, stuffed cabbage, pierogis, kielbasa and other goodies, and we ate with our concoctions and tasted each other’s drinks. Na zdrowie!