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The Polish Drinking Ways

A horrible drunk-driving accident draws attention to Poles’ attitudes toward alcohol.

by Martin Ehl 28 January 2014

I have had many a glass of vodka with Poles, including those sweet and multicolored kinds, industrial-made or produced by small establishments such as a certain sweets shop in the center of Krakow. I've tasted Polish beer and wine (yes, in Poland, they do cultivate grapes, and in the valley around Sandomierz the vineyards date back around 500 years). So I know something about the warm relationship that Poles have to alcohol. That relationship jumped into focus on New Year’s Day – soon after a drunk driver killed six people in the Polish city of Kamien Pomorski.


Prime Minister Donald Tusk probably got the most carried away, although he has the excuse that in recent months, under the pressure of sliding poll figures for his party, he is now prone to promise anything to anyone. After the accident he said cars should be equipped – if not immediately then soon – with cheap  breath-alcohol detectors so drivers could determine whether they were drunk and subsequently even be blocked from starting their cars. And he earned deserved ridicule.


I was therefore grateful that colleagues from the Polish weekly Polityka soberly examined the Polish relationship with alcohol in a penetrating article in the latest edition of the magazine.


The Mecca of Polish alcoholics are the 24-hour gas stations and numerous small shops, often only a small window, a remnant of the first wave of capitalism in the early 1990s, when enterprising Poles rushed to trade in everything. According to the calculations of Polityka, during the day you need go only 100 meters (110 yards) from your house to buy alcohol, while at night you would have to journey at most 200 meters.


An interesting phenomenon related to the Polish relationship to hard alcohol are malpky – literally translated as “little apes.” Malpky, as they call small bottles of hard alcohol, contain one or two shots. Although Polish linguists date their emergence to the 1940s, they really took off during the crisis of 2009.


I have used malpky, for instance, to taste a new vodka before buying it or as a quick solution when one suddenly needs to drink anything at anytime with anyone (see the above-mentioned average distance to the nearest store). The largest Polish manufacturer of spirits, Stock Polska, sells a quarter of its production via malpky.


Their characteristics, as described in that Polityka article, made me laugh. “Qualified experts claim that their taste is on the level of their prices. But consumers love them because they are tailored to every wallet and every palette. Malpky cure a hangover, maintain endurance and strength (for the moment), improve one's mood before a meeting, add a poetic dimension to a walk.” They are often colorful, 30 percent alcohol, cherry-, lemon-, pineapple-, or God-knows-what-flavored.


From my own experience I can say that there is no pure Polish vodka, which, properly chilled, smells beautifully and does not bite when you drink it. A special category of Polish alcohol is the classic, orange gorzka zelodkowa “bitter stomach” vodka. It is excellent primarily as a substitute for the Czech Fernet in case of stomach problems or as a digestive after a heavier dinner. The manufacturer, Polmos Lublin (which also belongs to the Stock Polska group), started recently to “clean” this vodka and sell it in a white transparent version. But that's just not it.


“Bitter stomach” vodka also has an irreplaceable place in Polish politics. A certain Janusz Palikot controlled the Polmos Lublin company for some time. Palikot, a former philosopher, then became an entrepreneur in the production of sparkling wines and spirits. And thanks to the affection Poles have for alcohol, he earned enough to focus on politics as an instigator and leader of the somewhat non-standard populist party, Twoj ruch (Your movement), which in an upset took third place in the last parliamentary election.


In the years 2010-2011 Polish experts conducted the first national epidemiological survey using the methodology of the World Health Organization. Its results show that about 3 million Poles, 12 percent of the population, drink enough to suffer at least psychological consequences. Among them are 600 who are truly addicted.


In their own category are Polish drunk drivers, who will now – because of the tragedy in Kamien Pomorski and because of higher fines – have it tougher. In 2013, Polish police detained 162,000 drunk drivers. They caused 2,000 accidents in which 265 people died.


Other research, this time by sociologist Janusz Czapinski, shows that the proportion of women among alcoholics has been rising. The more educated, the more they drink, while among men it's the opposite – the least-educated drink the most. Alcohol producers are also increasingly targeting women with flavored, sweet, weaker (30 percent) alcohols and cocktails in attractive packages.


An average salary today can buy three times more bottles of vodka than after the fall of communism almost 25 years ago. Around 18 million zloty ($6 million) flows into the state treasury from alcohol taxes. But according to an estimate by one nongovernmental medical organization, medical treatment, injury, illness, crimes committed under the influence of alcohol, and related social costs rob the state budget of about 30 billion zlotys annually. And alcohol contributes to the deaths of 10,000 to 12,000 Poles each year.


But let’s not fall into consumer and national stereotypes. We Czechs have little room to talk. We drink twice as much beer and wine as our northern neighbors, and a third more spirits. The Poles do surpass the Czechs in one area: they drink two and a half times more illegal alcohol. Officially a Pole drinks nine liters’ worth of legal, 100 percent alcohol a year. Illegal consumption takes the number to 13.25 liters per year, according to WHO.


The typical Czech, however, drinks 16.45 liters per year of legal and illegal alcohol (the figures are from 2012, when the methanol alcohol scandal erupted). The Czechs hold second place in per capita alcohol consumption globally – behind the Moldovans and ahead of the Hungarians. And the Poles are lagging down in 20th place between the Slovaks and the Austrians. Our neighbors still have some catching up to do. 

Martin Ehl
 is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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