I used to live just up the street from Rite Liquors
, a mildly sketchy Polish bar/liquor store near Division and Ashland that I developed a certain affection for over time. It had an odd sort of charm helped along by friendly bartenders, one of whom introduced me to Zubrowka, or bison grass vodka. It's a slightly herbal (and, yes, grassy-tasting) liquor distilled from rye that's been made in Poland since the 16th century, and has a complex history in this country that the Wall Street Journal detailed in a 2011 article
. It was banned in the U.S. for years because it contains coumarin, a moderately toxic chemical that occurs naturally in bison grass. When it comes to the appeal of the forbidden and possibly dangerous, absinthe has nothing on Zubrowka. In 2005 the Polish distillery Polmos Bialystok, the only distillery allowed to use the Zubrowka name, developed a formula without coumarin and began selling it in the U.S.
The most common way to drink Zubrowka seems to be with apple juice, which, until this weekend, was the only way I'd ever had it. But on Friday I was flipping through the recent Hearty Boys cookbook (mixology book?) The New Old Bar, and came across a recipe called the Bison Grass Crusta that called for Zubrowka, lemon juice, and pineapple syrup. I love ginger syrup but I'd never made pineapple syrup before, and it looked good—and I already had most of a bottle of Zubrowka on hand.
The recipe called for simple syrup cooked for about ten minutes with cubed fresh pineapple. When it was time to take it off the heat I tasted the mixture and detected only a faint pineapple flavor, so I covered the pot and simmered it for another couple of hours, checking it occasionally. The flavor intensified quite a bit over time, but never exactly became strong. I left the pineapple in it for a few more hours while the syrup cooled, then strained it through a paper-towel-lined colander and incorporated it into a big batch of the cocktail (I was having friends over). It was pretty good, but the pineapple flavor was subtle at best. I might just stick to apple juice in the future—it's a lot easier, anyway.
Bison Grass Crusta (from The New Old Bar)
(The recipe calls for sugared lemon peel around the rim of the glass, but I didn't do that.)
2 oz bison grass vodka
1 oz fresh lemon juice
1 oz pineapple syrup*
Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake well. Strain into a chilled coupe, and serve garnished with a lemon peel.
1 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup cubed fresh pineapple (approximately one-inch cubes)
Combine the water and sugar in a saucepan and place it over high heat. Bring to a boil and stir to dissolve the sugar. Add the pineapple and bring to a second boil. Lower the heat to medium and simmer for eight to ten minutes, gently pressing on the pineapple occasionally with the spoon to help release the juices. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Julia Thiel writes about booze every Wednesday.