Interview: Kavka Vodka Founder Jan Woroniecki

Produced in Poland, a sensational small-batch spirit with dynamic capabilities

Quite familiar with various vodkas and their ideal cocktail uses, restaurateur Jan Woroniecki—owner of London’s upscale Ognisko Restaurant, situated within the elegant Polish member’s club Ognisko Polski—decided to configure his own. Produced at an independent distillery in Poland, Woroniecki’s Kavka Vodka nods to historic distillation methods that date back as far as the 18th century. Working with master distiller Urszula Wojcik and acclaimed bartender Karol Terejlis, Woroniecki rebuffed the idea that vodka is an odorless and flavorless liquid by crafting Kavka from a blend of premium grain alcohol, while also introducing a small amount of aged spirit derived from fruit. The result is crisp, clean, fresh and smooth—as enjoyable neat as it is in a martini with a twist.

“I’ve been in the Eastern European restaurant business for 30 odd years,” Woroniecki tells us from Ognisko’s beautiful front bar. “My first restaurant was called Wodka, funny enough, in Kensington. At various times I thought about launching a vodka, but it’s only been in the last few years, with the gin revolution, that vodka suddenly seemed to be very boring and driven by crass marketing with brands fighting over very small points of difference. I thought it would be good to see if we could ‘gin-ify’ vodka, and make it more artisanal and more personal.”

Woroniecki began with research, looking into small, old-fashioned brands served in Eastern European restaurants of yesteryear. He learned that things were made differently then. “It was only, really, with the communist era and centralization that everything homogenized,” he says. “In the US, the definition was formed that vodka had to be odorless, colorless and flavorless.” This was a move that did the tipple no service for a long time.

“I also found that various small distilleries in the 19th century would create vodkas that had a bit more character than the basic profile we know today,” he continues. “We played around with this. I met up with a fantastic master distiller, Urszula Wojcik, and we came up with this production technique where we add very small quantities of aged, pot stilled fruit spirits—a bit of plum and a bit of apple, it counts for about 1%—to our blend of rye and wheat-based spirit. Under Polish law, you can add up to 3% of other spirits and it can still be called a plain vodka, though, for Polish vodka classification everything has to be made in Poland.” Kavka contains no additives or sugars. It is not flavored. It’s a premium product that derives an extra edge of character from these methods.

To get to Kavka’s recipe requires dual production. Woroniecki acquires his grain spirit from a tiny distillery that’s southeast of Warsaw. Further, “We’ve got a small producer in a beautiful town called Sandomierz in the southeast of Poland, in the fruit-growing area. He distills and makes the eau de vies with a meticulous nature.” Then, these are blended and bottled. It’s at this stage—blending—that Woroniecki intends to invest further. It will allow him to explore other variations, so long as they also adhere to the natural processes he requires for Kavka.

Kavka means jackdaw—and Woroniecki knew that he wanted a bird to be involved in the label. He also “always wanted a woodcut feel to it” to nod toward the history behind their specific production processes. He then partnered with the design agency Stranger and Stranger to bring his vision to life.

As for how to drink it, Kavka’s site has cocktail suggestions, but Woroniecki has his own advice. “Ours lends itself to a martini particularly. The flavor profile changes as the liquid warms up. When you get it very cold, the crisp apple comes through; as it warms up, the sweeter plum emerges,” he says, noting that a trained palate is more likely to observe this. However, he adds, “I love just sipping it at room temperature, too.” At Ognisko, we sampled the vodka neat but quite cold, and then in a martini. And we found that our own sentiments aligned with that of the founder. In an often uninteresting category, Kavka arrives with personality.

Images courtesy of Kavka