by Douglas Blyde - Saturday October 2, 2010 3:28 pm
Wiry, stubbly and sporting a signature scarf, Kosovan, Pleurat ‘Latti’ Shabani is the mind behind luxury Polish vodka, ‘Konik’s Tail’. I sipped away an afternoon with him at The Connaught’s Coburg Bar (the hotel’s pre-war name was ‘Prince of Saxe Coburg’). Selected by bar manager, Mark Jenner, this five star account represents one of 60 accrued with the help of high profile hearsay in less than a month. Of the venue, Shabani whispered, ‘there was a time when I’d never have dreamt of coming to a place like this...’
Named after the small stocky pony native to Europe’s largest remaining primeval forest located in northeast Poland, Shabani’s vodka appears a self-funded triumph over the seeming miserliness of timid banks. It is perhaps the most striking product of a 13 year obsession with the lucent spirit, which has seen him act as vodka agent, consultant, importer, and for seven years, international judge.
To locate the most appropriate distillery, Shabani tasted relentlessly, pitching super premium against premium brands (the latter can demonstrate significant merits he claims). In the quest for consistency, he compared these bi-monthly. Eventually setting sights on the maker of popular bison grass vodka, Żubrówka in Białystok, he encountered and eventually secured Master of the Cellar, Bernadeta Ejsmont. ‘I wanted a woman’s touch’, he smiled.
Shabani chose Poland over what he describes as less reliable countries in the vodka belt including Russia ‘whose producers occasionally smooth harsh edges with sugar syrup and honey’. Of Poland’s growers, he recalls cooking individual grains ‘to discover, heighten and share the experience of the different flavours.’
Of the konik, which has an 800 year relationship with the Białowieża forest, Shabani discovered that farmers used to harness them in early spring, then release them come winter ‘because they couldn’t afford to feed them’. Shabani admitted a yearning to see one of these now rare animals, partly to redeem its fabled auspices. ‘I ventured out 15 times across all four seasons at different times - with no success. Then I went with an 85 year-old farmer who knew exactly where to find one.’ In homage, Shabani included a translation of a traditional saying in the centre of the label. It reads: ‘the primeval Konik is the elusive spirit of the forest. To catch a glimpse is said to ensure a good harvest for the making of great vodka...’
Shabani hopes the distinctive but resolutely classic packaging marks Konik’s Tail as a quality product inappropriate for burying in a freezer. ‘The printing plates took six months to handmake,’ he said, adding: ‘you couldn’t see the third konik originally.’ This fine tuning was vital, said Shabani, because each konik represents an individually distilled component of the drink. ‘100% spelt didn’t give enough complexity or crispiness,’ he explained. ‘Rye is very oily, with a buttery quality whilst early winter wheat adds natural sweetness, spice and even aniseed.’ Konik’s Tail is twice distilled in stills fired by silver birch charcoal – a process dating to the 14th century. It is also filtered through the wood, then stoppered with cork pressed from the bark.
Nose to Konik’s Tail
So how does the first batch of 5,000 bottles taste? When stirred as a dry martini with olive, the product of 100 research missions via Easy Jet and 300 blending experiments released predominantly smoky flavours of grain. With a twist, however, it appeared fresher, lifted and crisper. When served free from distractions from a bottle held at room temperature into an ice frosted glass, I found it at its most mellow – kindest in the mouth – mineral and remotely fennel scented, with a thick, moist texture and resounding struck tuning fork finish. ‘A drop of water helps open it out,’ he correctly advised, a technique learnt whilst judging international vodka competitions.’
Indeed, that style of serving is exaclty how Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver of ‘St. John’ restaurant fame enjoyed it over a long lunch of ham hock, ox heart, bone barrow and calf brain. ‘They said they couldn’t believe how easily they’d drunk a whole bottle of neat vodka!’
‘It’s probably not going to make me a millionaire,’ said Shabani as the barman charged our glasses for the third time before we decamped to another Mayfair stockist. ‘In fact it’s going to take three years to break even,’ he added. However, with interest from Brazil, the US and Canada in the past few days alone, the future looks as transparent as the spirit. It has even been said that Patience Gould, Editor of The Drinks Business asked Shabani to sign and date a bottle for her six year-old to open on their 21st birthday. But regardless of positive prose, Shabani is patient enough to value loyalty when building this brand for the long term as demonstrated by his request for me to write an entry in his guest book. ‘I’m not ready for the other markets yet,’ he said. ‘And I never want to neglect the UK.’