Cocktail of the Month: The Tatanka

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Bison grass vodka, the essential ingredient in a Tatanka. Photo by Jojo.

Before modern medicine gave the world Viagra, there were many folk remedies believed to increase a man’s sexual prowess. Several of these involved alcohol and are still in use today.

For example, in China, wine distilled from the blood of poisonous snakes will purportedly make a man very powerful and virile. It’s believed that the more deadly the serpent the more potent the effects.

A similar antidote is found in Vietnam, where men mix bear bile with rice wine because they believe it makes them stronger and able to drink more. The problem with this cure is that it is extremely cruel to the bears, which are kept in small cages and milked from open wounds. Fortunately, there is a movement against this practice and several bear “farms” have been shut down, with sanctuaries set up for the rescued animals.

On a less exotic note, Ireland’s Guinness stout is rumored to make a man last longer in bed. This claim, coming from a company that once employed the advertising slogan “Guinness is good for you,” does have some scientific backing. In a New York Post article, Dr. Kat Van Kirk claims: “dark beers such as Guinness can boost a man’s libido and lead to longer, more intense erections because of their high amounts of iron, which increases the amount of blood circulation.”

During a recent trip to Poland, I discovered another powerful potable: bison grass or Żubrówka (pronounced ju-broof-ka) vodka. The name Żubrówka stems from the words for “bison grass” in Polish, Belarusian and Russian.

The spirit gets its name because each bottle is infused with the plant and contains a blade of bison grass from the Białowieża Forest. The mixture results in a greenish-yellow spirit with an herbal taste. When tasted straight up, Żubrówka has a distinct flavor all its own: grassy, floral, with strong sweet and nutty notes like pecan or walnut.

Bison grass is rumored to be a source of strength and virility. It was actually banned in the U.S. until about 10 years ago because of its medicinal qualities. However, these had nothing to do with it being an aphrodisiac. Bison grass contains an organic chemical compound called coumarin that acts as a blood thinner.

It wasn’t until vodka producers found a way to distill it without the coumarin that Żubrówka became available in the States. This is similar to absinthe, which was unavailable in the U.S. before producers found a way to remove the thujone.

Since I’ve had the opportunity of tasting Żubrówka both in America and in Poland, I can attest that, overall, the flavor profile is nearly identical — although the Polish version does taste a touch heavier, with some vanilla notes (which come directly from the coumarin).

The unique flavor of Żubrówka on its own is a refreshing change from the artificially flavored, chemical-tasting vodkas that have been immensely popular in the U.S.

In Poland, bison grass vodka is most commonly served with apple juice in a cocktail called the Tatanka. If the name of this drink rings a bell, you can thank Kevin Costner. The Lakota word “tatanka,” meaning bison, was used prominently in his Oscar-winning film “Dances With Wolves.”

I discovered this drink on a sunny June afternoon in Krakow. I had ducked inside a quiet bar before the evening rush for a conference call. I wanted something fresh and cooling and my bartender immediately suggested a Tatanka.

It fit the bill perfectly. While the apple juice does add a lot of sweetness, I found the Polish version of the mixer less cloying than the commercially produced bottled juices typical in the States. The natural sugar from the juice, combined with the botanical and nutty flavors from the vodka, were reminiscent of a fluffy apple pastry that didn’t weight you down. It came garnished with a fresh flower, giving it an ethereal vibe.

The exceptional aspect of this simple highball was complexity of flavors, imparted by the vodka’s multilayered earthy and floral components, which instantly gave it a craft cocktail aura.

As for its additional “benefits,” I cannot comment, since I was on a solo venture and retired to my Airbnb alone. But if you would like to conduct further research, the Tatanka can be assembled easily at home.

The Tatanka

3 oz. Żubrowka bison grass vodka

5 oz. fresh apple juice

Juice of 1/2 lime

Shake all ingredients with ice and pour into an ice-filled glass.

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