Our previous home, Kentucky, is famous for its bourbon whiskey. Does our new home, Poland, make whiskey? I found a store near Gdańsk that specializes in whiskey, so I stopped by to find the answer.
Walking into Dom Whisky (translates to House of Whisky), I was surrounded by thousands of bottles of whiskey*: Scotch, Irish and American to the left; Japanese, Swedish, Finnish, Dutch, French, Mexican and numerous other countries to the right. The gentleman who offered to help me was wearing a kilt, so the chances were good that I could find out about Polish whiskey here.
They do indeed carry one label of Polish whiskey, but it was out of stock at the moment. So sorry, but would I be interested in Starka instead?
What is Starka?
Starka is a spirit that originated in the 15th century in what came to be the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the area that is now Poland, Lithuania and western Russia. Today, there are different varieties of Starka, but I’ll be discussing Polish Starka.
The legend of Starka
Differing accounts of Starka’s origin have differing details, but the overall theme is the same. Since we are in Poland, I’ll defer to the history of Starka given by the maker of Polish Starka, Szczecińska Fabryka Wódek „Starka” Spółka z o.o.:
When a noble family had a boy, an oak barrel was filled with alcohol, small amounts of apple and lime** were added, and the barrel was buried, to be retrieved and served at the son’s wedding ceremony.
What does Starka taste like?
I purchased the 80 proof “10 Year Adventure Special Edition.” I really enjoyed it and here are my tasting notes:
~ sweet, light butterscotch with old wood/leather
~ slightly herbaceous with hints of green pepper and fresh grass
~ dull brass
~ alcohol burn at the beginning
~ caramel apple on the front of the taste
~ spicy in the middle (cinnamon, nutmeg)
~ with a long, smooth finish
Overall, it does remind me of whiskey.
How is Starka made?
The exact recipe is a secret, but Szczecińska Fabryka Wódek’s general process is:
- they begin with distilled rye spirits
- the raw distillate from step #1 is diluted to approximately 120 proof. The diluted alcohol is aged in large wooden vessels for approximately a year.
- After a year, other (secret) ingredients are added to the raw distillate and then this mixture is put into barrels for aging. The aging lasts from 3-70 years. At some point in this process, the liquid is subjected to freezing temperatures.
- After the appropriate aging, the alcohol is allowed to warm to ambient temperature, bottled and distributed.
How is Starka similar to whiskey?
Just like whiskey, Starka:
- is made through a distillation process, and
- is aged in oak barrels. The time that the alcohol spends in contact with the wood gives it color and some of its flavor.
How is Starka different than whiskey?
The simplest answer is that Starka is made with rye, whereas Scotch is made with malted barley, bourbon has to be 51% corn and Irish whiskey is made with both malted and unmalted barley. There are probably other differences, but since the complete Starka recipe is secret, I don’t know what those differences are.
Where is Starka made?
In addition to Poland, Starka is made in:
- Lithuania: Vilniaus Degtine and Stumbras
- Russia, where it is actually a type of vodka(rectified spirits)
- America: St. Louis Distillery, Bull Run Distilling Company, and Big Bottom Distilling
- New Zealand: Karven Craft Distillery
The next step:
Because I enjoyed this 10-year Starka, my next step is to return to Dom Whisky and buy some Starka with more age. And, if I’m really lucky, that Polish whiskey will be back in stock.
* Is it “whiskey” or “whisky” (with or without the “e”)? Well, it depends on which spirit you’re referring to. Around the end of the 19th century it became standard that the Irish (and Americans) made whiskey (with the “e”) and Scots (and Canadians and Japanese) made whisky (without the “e”). Since I’m partial to bourbon whiskey (with the “e”), whenever I discuss the beverage in general terms, I use whiskey. I’m sure that others will have their own preference.
**Limes in Poland in the 15th century? I’m dubious, but that’s what the legend says.