A Lesson in Polish Potatoes

Last week I had lunch with Chopin Vodka founder Tad Dorda and his daughter Alexandra, the company’s Brand Ambassador, to discuss the changing vodka market and the brand’s off-premise strategy. Unplanned, but equally as interesting, was a side discussion about the potato market in Poland and how vodka fits into that country’s culture and history.

Chopin is a Polish small-batch producer that makes single-ingredient vodkas – potato, wheat and rye. Each bottle contains only three ingredients: potatoes, wheat or rye; yeast and well water. Chopin sources the ingredients locally and distills its vodka four times in a copper still.

In addition to the three vodkas, Chopin offers limited distribution of Chopin Single, a single-ingredient, single-distilled craft vodka line. Each Single release represents a different harvest and vintage – for example, 2011 Young Potato, which retains a strong flavor thanks to the single distillation. Each year’s product is affected differently by the weather, soil conditions and harvest time, creating a set of vodkas comparable side-by-side like vintages of wine.

7 Tad potato picking

Chopin Vodka founder Tad Dorda hand-picking potatoes in Poland.

Tad Dorda is passionate about his potatoes – his family plants and harvests many of the potatoes by hand as his ancestors have done for centuries. He’s also passionate about elevating the discussion about vodka – away from being a tasteless, mixable spirit and toward defining stricter standards for what can be called vodka. He advocates for protections like those created for Champagne, Bourbon or Cognac, which would force the creation of higher-quality vodkas and protect the industry.

On consumer education, Dorda says there’s a long way to go before consumers stop treating vodka like a tasteless commodity and begin to understand subtleties in taste and texture. The flavored vodka craze, he says, did a lot of damage to vodka as a category because it distracted from the quality of what’s in the bottle. While Chopin does offer flavored spirits in European markets (mostly fruit flavors with a long history in those markets), the company has never sold flavored vodka in the U.S., and Dorda assured me it never will.

Chopin's full portfolio of spirits.

Chopin’s full portfolio of spirits.

A complete Q&A column with Tad Dorda, discussing everything from competitors in the marketplace to this year’s small potato harvest, will be posted in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

Full disclosure: Chopin Vodka covered the cost of my meal during this discussion.

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