Let’s be honest: Vodka is not the most interesting spirit, and flavored vodkas tend to be even worse. But there is one exception (and no, it’s not cupcake- or whipped cream–flavored vodka).
ZU, also known as Zubrowka, is a Polish bison-grass vodka that’s been around for centuries. Bison grass? Like the name suggests, it’s a favored food of bison, which still roam freely in a particular remote Polish forest. It’s there that Zubrowka harvests the grass that flavors its vodka. The vodka itself is made from rye, distilled four times so it’s particularly smooth, and infused with that distinctive bison grass.
Great story, but what does that mean for cocktails? Unlike most vodka, which is essentially flavorless, ZU has a grassy, woodsy flavor with strong whiffs of vanilla and almond; its crazy complexity makes it a fascinating pairing for all sorts of ingredients.
Here are three cocktails to make with ZU, none of which require more than a few simple ingredients and a few minutes of your time. (We do teach you to make an infused syrup. Guess what: not as difficult as it sounds.)
Easy: ZU & Cider
ZU plus apple juice is the classic way to drink bison-grass vodka, the way folks have for centuries. We promise you, it tastes exactly, almost uncannily, like apple pie. Here, we swap the juice out for hard cider, which lends complexity, a little sparkle and a little more booze.
Instructions: Add 1½ ounces ZU to a tall glass with ice, and top with about 4 ounces of hard cider. Apple slices make a logical (and good-looking) garnish.
Usually, when you see fruit and vodka in a list of cocktail ingredients, it’s going to be overbearingly sweet. Not this drink. A full dose of ZU gives it all of those interesting herbal-vanilla notes, while raspberries and lots of lemon keep it tart and refreshing.
Instructions: In a cocktail shaker, muddle (that is, smash up) 5 raspberries. Add 1 ounce of fresh lemon juice, 2 ounces of ZU, and ½ ounce of honey syrup—that’s just equal parts of honey and hot water stirred together. Add a dash of orange bitters, if you have ’em. (Angostura orange bitters are sold at most grocery stores.) Add ice, shake it all up, and strain into a glass. A splash of soda brightens up everything.
We love all of the different herbal flavors you get in ZU, so here we play them up with thyme. For this drink, we’re making a quick thyme syrup—but don’t be intimidated, it’s as easy as making tea. Once it’s ready, this drink comes together in 10 seconds. (And how impressed will your friends be: What’s in this cocktail? It was easy, really, just this thyme syrup I made…)
Instructions: Let’s start with the thyme syrup. Boil ½ cup of water, take it off the heat and drop in a handful of fresh thyme sprigs; let it steep for about 10 minutes. Stir in ½ cup of sugar until it dissolves. Look: thyme syrup! (This’ll make at least six drinks; the extra keeps for quite a while in the fridge.)
For the cocktail: Add 2 ounces of ZU, 1 ounce of fresh grapefruit juice and ¾ ounce of that thyme syrup to a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake it all up, strain into a classy cocktail glass (this one is called a coupe) and garnish with a little more thyme.
Related: 3 Drinks to Make with King's Ginger