by Jaclyn DeGiorgio for USA TODAY 10Best

What it's like to take a vodka tour in Krakow

Note from 10Best: This tour took place prior to the 2020 pandemic. Check with individual companies for the most up-to-date information.

We participants in Eat Polska’s vodka tour declare a "Na zdrowie," the Polish equivalent of "Cheers!", then clank our glasses together to put back our first vodka of the evening, Wyborowa, a pure white rye vodka.

We're gathered around a table in the cozy, wood-paneled dining room of an old-school, traditional Polish restaurant near Krakow's main square, and gaze at our next elixir: Żołądkowa Gorzka, a pale gold, herbal-infused vodka.

We approach it like wine, sensing aromas of nutmeg and other spices. Żołądkowa Gorzka is meant to be sipped and savored slowly, and as we nurse ours, we fuel up on zakąski, traditional Polish snack-sized dishes.

While we eat, our guide explains how vodka is Poland's national drink, and that it holds the same title in Russia as the countries' histories overlap, rendering vodka’s point of origin a perpetual topic of debate.

The next stop brings us to an eclectic shop that could easily pass for the potions lab at Hogwarts, with backlit glass orbs containing nalewki (infused vodka) in myriad jewel tones.

Image courtesy of Jaclyn DeGiorgio

Similar to the bitter liqueurs in Italy, nalewki, which became popular in the 16th century, originally had medicinal purposes and served as a panacea for various ailments and afflictions. They became mainstream by the 20th century.

Our guide patiently lead us through a nalewki blind-tasting, prompting us to guess the flavors of two – which I won’t spoil here for any potential future vodka tour participants.

Image courtesy of Jaclyn DeGiorgio

Our third destination is a lively convivial tavern specializing in Lemkos cuisine, food typical of Nomadic people from a region close to the Ukrainian border. Here, we sample J.A. Baczewski, a Polish/Austrian potato vodka.

Image courtesy of Jaclyn DeGiorgio

We also sip dzięgielówka (garden angelica or wild celery vodka). Angelica grows mainly in the Carpathian Mountains, and over the centuries, angelica-infused vodka was used as a cure for digestive problems.

To keep ourselves sated, we top brown bread with a punchy lardo crackling spread and dig into bigos, or hunters' stew, a hearty, comforting hodgepodge of mushrooms, beef and fermented sauerkraut.

Image courtesy of Jaclyn DeGiorgio

Our last stop is a chic speakeasy near Krakow’s historic center. Here, our guide introduces us to the most intriguing vodka of the evening, Żubrówka, or bison grass vodka.

We formally taste the vodka first, and this (unsurprisingly) earthy potion emits traces of vanilla, almond and cinnamon. Each bottle is packaged with a glass blade plucked from Poland’s Białowieża Forest.

In the U.S., the vodka is sold sans grass blade as it contains coumarin, a chemical that thins the blood, therefore bison grass vodka in its purest form is prohibited stateside.

Overall, the tour offered an atypical lens for a memorable glimpse of Poland's culture and history. The most gratifying part? Learning to drink vodka, Polish-style.

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