Vodka — the cause of and solution to some of life’s problems.
Or, wait… was that ‘alcohol’? Meh, I don’t remember.
The beverage we know today as vodka came from Poland, or so the Polish claim. Less biased sources also point to Russia and Sweden — and the sign at one museum acknowledges the origins of distilling alcohol as coming from 8th century Arabs), but Warsaw holds two museums dedicated to the drink. Naturally, I had to check them both out.
The Polish Vodka Museum (Muzeum Polskiej Wódki) – guided tours required
Arriving here means coming to the Plac Konesera, a quickly-developing hipster plaza with this museum as one of a few reasons to come here. Guided tours are required, and the best time to hop onto an English-language tour is 40 past the hour. Expect to take 70 minutes to meander your way through centuries of vodka-making (and vodka-drinking history), along with a tasting of different Polish vodkas.
First things first, though — like too many museums around the world, a video needs watching. I was not thrilled by this notion, and reluctantly settled into an old-school movie theatre seat. These sorts of videos are not why one leaves their house and pays an admission fee, usually delaying you from seeing the things you came to see and telling you about them instead…
The guide mentioned the authentically retro nature of the theatre in short order, and the video began a moment later. Complete with Polish audio, English subtitles, and a good soundtrack, it was almost like watching a short Netflix documentary. It had some nationalism and proud moments here and there, but it was surprisingly well-produced. Perhaps this is an omen?
One of the first rooms focuses on the ingredients used in vodka (one of a few grains or potatoes — but not grapes, as used in grappa). It’s here where we learn Polish vodka is a geographically protected term, like Champagne, for vodka made in Poland and produced with the correct ingredients. I got the sense this was a fairly recent political and nationalist victory, and not the sense that ‘Polish vodka’ had yet reached the premium branding mindset…
While the guide talked about how vodka was once used as medicine, I took in the recipes on the walls to take for purported cures (not pictured). It’s a good artistic look — modern and kinda fun even if the guided tour is slow and required.
A number of rooms walk you through Poland’s former vodka manufacturing dominance and how it was enjoyed in the past. These are fine, but tend to put style above substance. A large, dinner-table-like touchscreen showing a few paragraphs of vodka, as enjoyed some centuries ago is a centerpiece, but nothing particularly compelling…
Head past some lit-up reproductions of distillation machinery and learn about how vodka is made — and how that process has changed over the centuries.
One of the final rooms is a showcase of vodka in bottles behind glass — including a bottle of cherry vodka from the late 1940’s. In the decades since, there are dozens of odd bottles, labels, and stories to read through or listen to if you’re inclined. This area is also where the European Union bureaucracy has defined ‘Polish vodka’ when Poland entered the EU in 2004. In case you’re in Poland and go looking for it, the words ‘Polish Vodka’ is on bottles that have the protected geographical indication, or there might be a small circular logo with a map of Poland.
The next rooms goes into the modern-day view of drinking, complete with a selection of so-called ‘beer-goggles’ and a bit on the local drinking customs. Cute, but by this point we’ve spent over an hour talking about vodka and zero time actually drinking it…
Finally! Three classy glasses of room-temperature vodka for tasting, anyone? The actual amount of vodka should best be described as ‘thimbleful’, and since few people on the tour would have ever described themselves as ‘vodka tasters’, it was enough.
The focus here is on the smell, taste, and aftertaste — which, to an American like me, who is used to thinking of vodka as a “neutral spirit without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” After a bit of explanation, we tried a wheat vodka, a potato vodka, and a rye vodka — those that paid extra for a yellow bracelet got to try a fourth vodka, a premium vodka called Wyborowa Exquisite. I wasn’t aware of anything else the yellow bracelet got you, so I wouldn’t bother with that.
Overall, it’s educational, modern, and has plenty going on to justify experiencing the place for yourself. The guided nature of the tour slows things down without really adding a lot to the tour. The 70 minute tour could easily be 45 minutes without breaking a sweat. The tasting area is a great area to compare and find a favorite Polish vodka — and naturally, one need not go too far to discover a bottle for yourself.
Name: The Polish Vodka Museum (Muzeum Polskiej Wódki)
Address: Plac Konesera 1, 03-736 Warszawa, Poland (GPS: 52.255375, 21.045971)
Hours: 11am-8:30pm (until 9:30pm on Friday and Saturday – closed Monday) — English-language tours start at 40 minutes past the hour.
Admission: 40 zloty
Next up: Muzeum Wodki
Following up a solid challenger is always hard, regardless of the sport, discipline, or whatever. I’m not sure which of these two came first, but this is one case where ‘which came first’ is the wrong question to ask.
Arrive at this particular museum amidst one of the tourist-friendly areas of Warsaw to discover… well, a mysterious sort of thing. From the main street you’ll see some signage suggesting it’s here, but you’ll actually have to find your way around to the back to discover the proper entrance.
It’s here where you quickly discover what a museum in the basement of an apartment complex looks like. Head right to get a ticket (while peeking at the vodka tasting that’s a separate fee from the museum), and use the closet-calling-itself-a-coatroom for your jacket, if you like.
This is one of those museums that houses the explanations inside booklet — the cabinets hold numbers next to the exhibit, which correspond to entries in the booklet. You’ll want to choose whether you’re the sort to read along with every exhibit or just the ones you’re interested in.
This is more a museum of glasses, bottles, labels, and a few scattered mentions of how it’s made.
Yes, there’s vodka in the vodka museum.
If you like, you can do their vodka tasting — it’s an optional add-on, and a much more impressive display than what I heard as I was passing by. I did not participate, but based on the display, it didn’t seem to have a lot of curation to it.
In total, I was in and out in 30 minutes. It’s decently displayed with good lighting, just small and unremarkable.
Name: Vodka Museum (Muzeum Wodki)
Address: Wierzbowa 11, 00-094 Warszawa, Poland (GPS: 52.243619, 21.007982)
Hours: 11am-6pm (until 7pm on Sunday and 9pm on Friday and Saturday, closed Mondays)
Admission: 19 zloty (with a ‘classic’ vodka tasting: 39 zloty; with a ‘premium’ vodka tasting: 75 zloty)
The final verdict
Well, this should be obvious enough.
The Polish Vodka Museum (Muzeum Polskiej Wódki) tells the full story, and helps contextualize vodka’s local origins. The Vodka Museum (Muzeum Wodki)…? Sorry, but isn’t really worth the time. It’s cheaper, and if you prefer reading along to being guided by a tour guide, you might prefer it.
If you’re looking for tastings, however, head to the nearest grocery store, convenience store, or alcohol store and do your own tastings. I’ve yet to find a reason to pay the same price for a ‘tasting’ as the grocery stores charge for a bottle.