Vodka has been produced in Poland for more than 1,000 years but historic Polish brands have failed to break into the global market. That may soon change. Last week, managers from the world’s largest vodka manufacturer were in Poland distilling a plan to launch an iconic domestic brand onto the US market in 2010.
From the traffic-choked access road on the edge of the Polish city of Bialystok – a gritty town of 300,000 inhabitants, not far from the Belarusian border – six gleaming towers reflect the late autumn sun. In the past two years, intensive US investment has turned the Polmos Bialystok distillery into one of Europe’s largest.
Most of the 120 million bottles of vodka produced here each year are sold domestically, under popular but undistinguished brand names. But this distillery has a secret weapon, stacked 4m high in a dark, refrigerated room: bags full of bison grass.
The sweet-smelling grass, gathered in the nearby primeval Bialowieza forest, is the key ingredient in Zubrowka, a traditional Polish rye vodka. The vodka is then mixed with a carefully prepared extract of bison grass and settled for two weeks. And on a rushing production line, a quartet of white-suited women slip a single blade of bison grass into each bottle as decoration.
Bison grass-flavoured vodka has been produced in the region since the 15th century and bottled under the Zubrowka name since 1926 (“zubr” is Polish for bison). The challenge facing Polmos Bialystok’s new American owners is daunting: can Zubrowka’s unique flavour and long history launch it into the wildly profitable premium vodka segment, alongside the likes of Dutch Ketel One and French Grey Goose?
Poland is a country with a taste for vodka, and Zubrowka is already Poland’s number three brand, with almost 15 million bottles sold domestically each year. “I can’t pinpoint any form of advertising for Zubrowka, but it’s still one of the best-known brands on the market, just through word of mouth,” says Mateusz Kowalik, who teaches marketing at Warsaw’s Polish-Japanese Institute of Information Technology. “All the other [Polish] vodkas are just vodka.”
But in the chaos that followed the end of communism here in 1989, Poland’s spirits industry failed to secure its brands spots in the booming international premium and luxury vodka market. In 1999, Poland’s distilleries were privatised and their communist-era brands handed over to newly independent companies, most too small and inexperienced to take their vodkas global.
In 2005, Polmos Bialystok was sold to Central European Distribution Corporation, or CEDC, an American company that is the world’s largest vodka producer. Reinventing Zubrowka as a global brand was a priority. In contrast to the Polish market, where the brand is seen as a mainstream drink, CEDC’s export strategy was designed to place Zubrowka in the “super-premium” category.
A new export bottle was designed by the New York and London based agency Pearlfisher, the company behind brands such as Absolut and Cadbury. “What we found in export was consumers said the product was great but the packaging didn’t communicate that,” says Iain Grist, CEDC’s European sales director. The new export bottle is engraved with stylised blades of grass and finished with a gold-embossed label.
The changes have made an impact. Zubrowka’s been available in France since the early 1980s, and today reigns as the top import vodka there with 100,000 cases are sold each year. And just in the past two years, the UK has risen from a few cases a year to overtake Japan as the brand’s second-best foreign market, with 30,000 cases – about 250,000 litres – sold in 2008.
The next challenge to reinventing this historic brand is the North American market, which has required the distillers here to tweak the product. For decades, food regulators in the US have restricted coumarin, the compound that gives bison grass – and Zubrowka – its characteristic aroma of fresh-cut hay and mint. “Coumarin is naturally occurring in quite a lot of things,” says Richard Roberts, CEDC’s vice president in charge of exports. “We had to find a way to strip it out.”
The reformulated vodka – in a bottle still graced with a characteristic blade of coumarin-free bison grass – was launched in a handful of test markets in the US last year, and a nation-wide strategy is in the works for 2010. If Zubrowka can become the first historic Polish vodka brand to break into the US super-premium market, its transformation will be complete and Poland will own its first luxury brand.