Photos by the author and via Adobe Stock. Composite by MUNCHIES Staff.
I’m in Białystok in north-eastern Poland, and I want to get hold of some bimber. Also known as samogon, duch puszczy, or księżycówka, the spirit has been produced here in the Podlasie region since the 19th century. It is similar in taste to vodka but apparently does not cause hangovers. Needless to say, I am intrigued—but getting hold of the stuff isn’t easy.“You’ll be hard pressed to get some,” local tour guide Anna Kraśnicka warns.
Indeed, bimber is not available to buy in shops here, nor can you get it in pubs, bars, or restaurants. It’s an illegally brewed alcohol, usually made in small batches in people’s homes or on a bigger scale and for profit, deep inside the forests that surround Podlasie.“It’s an illegal business because bimber makers don’t pay tax,” Kraśnicka, who writes about bimber-making on her blog Białystok Subiektywnie, explains. “There are similar legally produced spirits but the price increases significantly, from about 12 to 15 zloty per litre (£3 to £4), to around 60 zloty (£12).”
As a tour guide, sourcing bimber is a tricky subject for Kraśnicka.“No one can say, ‘Yes, I’ll get you some,’ because everyone is scared they’ll go to jail,” she says. “But some tourists do manage to get hold of it while visiting towns such as Czarna Białostocka—they’ll come back to the tour bus after sightseeing, carrying a bottle they got from a local while buying other souvenirs.”The most commonly used homebrew bimber recipe is known as “The Battle of Grunwald,” a reference to Polish–Lithuanian–Teutonic War of 1410—and shorthand for 1 kilogram of sugar, 4 litres of water, and 10 decagrams of yeast. Bimber made on a large scale, however, is distilled from rye and follows a secret recipe passed down through generations of brewers. Often tempered with honey or locally growing grass, fruits, flowers, or roots, it’s usually a golden yellow colour and can contain up to 70-percent ADV. If brewed incorrectly, drinkers can end up very ill.
“Bimber is a product that gained in value during periods of economic hardship, during war time, as a form of currency. This was especially the case during communist times,” says Dr. Karolina Radłowska, a researcher at the University of Białystok. “Especially during the period of martial law, the government was extremely restrictive and there was much clampdown on bimber-making.”She continues: “It therefore can be argued that bimber-making was a way to fight the system, and drinking it, a symbol of resistance. It’s also a prime example of Poles’ resourcefulness when there was literally nothing available.”While there have been initiatives to legalise bimber, Radłowska does not think this would benefit Poland’s homebrewers.
“It’s difficult to gauge if those who make it illegally would be particularly pleased if this came to pass—they would need to adhere to various rules and regulations,” she says.And so, with no legalisation in sight, those who wish to find out more about bimber-making are best going to an exhibition at the Podlasie Museum of Folk Culture. On display are a selection of large metal containers and distilling equipment once used for moonshine production in nearby forests, before being confiscated by the police.“The idea for the exhibition came about in 2008,” explains Hubert Czochański, who works at the Podlasie Museum and has also written on bimber-making. “Seizing equipment on a scale perhaps not seen before, the police decided to donate their haul to us, as opposed to destroying it as they customarily do.”
Although of course no bimber is made at the museum, the fermentation smell still emanates from the containers.“The exposition is continuously growing and is not waning in popularity,” Czochański says. “Why? I think because the process of bimber-making is still so shrouded in secrecy, and therefore this is a rare opportunity to see some of it up close.”Specialist vodka manufacturers Old Polish Vodka are also catering to Poles’ continued interest in bimber-making. Based in the Podlasie village of Lewkowo Stare, the distillery makes a bimber-style vodka called Samogon, which comes presented in an old-style bottle and is sealed with a wooden cork. The spirit is also adorned with a handwritten label and at 52-percent ABV, is nearly as strong as the illegally made stuff.
“Aside from aesthetics, we wanted to create something that’s based on those traditional methods of bimber-making,” Old Polish Vodka representative Marcin Sarnacki tells me. “Our Samogon’s only additive is roasted sugar, which gives it its rich golden colour.”Old Polish Vodka produces about 2,000 bottles at a time, selling at specialist shops across Poland.“As with all our other styles of vodka, it’s a high quality product for a customer who drinks for the taste—we encourage pairing it with meats and pickles,” Sarnacki adds.By the end of my chat with Sarnacki, I’m pretty convinced Old Polish Vodka’s Samogon is as close as you can get to authentic bimber, but I’m still keen to track down the real deal. After a few false starts, I finally get hold of a bottle through a family friend, but I’m warned not to reveal its origin. Much like Old Polish Vodka’s Samogon, the liquid is a rich golden colour and smells extremely potent. I’m pretty keen to down a shot there and then, but I decide to wait until I return to Manchester the following day. An impartial taste test will be the best way of judging which bimber is better.
Back home, I pour my friend Joni a shot of the Samogon vodka. “What do you think of this?” I ask.“It’s an earthy flavour, smoky—makes me think of eating cinder toffees,” she says. Next, I pass her a shot of the illegally brewed stuff, which is lighter in colour. She takes a sip and swills the liquid in her glass.“This is sweeter, woody—it reminds me of a premium whisky,” she remarks. “I could easily drink it all day.”I sample both both the spirits for myself. I’m torn—the Samogon delivers on flavour but there’s something warming and moreish about the bimber. Here’s hoping it really is hangover-free.