September 11, 2018
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Moonshine, typically known as “bimber” in Poland, may soon be legalized by the incoming government. There is a mix of tradition, politics and economics that makes homemade booze a popular issue to campaign on.
WARSAW — It's a question of freedom — and quality. Poland's incoming coalition government is busy negotiating a platform for the coming years. Though there is much that still divides the Left, the liberal-centrist Civic Koalition, and the centrist Third Way partners, there is one area where Poland’s new ruling coalition is nearly unanimous: moonshine.
The slogan for the legalization of moonshine (known in Poland as "bimber") was initially presented by Michał Kołodziejczak, the leader of Agrounia, a left-wing socialist political movement in Poland that has qualified to be part of the incoming Parliament.
”Formerly so-called moonshine was an important element of our cultural landscape, associated with mystery, breaking norms, and freedom from the state," Kołodziejczak said. "It was a reason to be proud, just like the liqueurs that Poles were famous for in the past.”
The president of Agrounia considered the right to make moonshine as a symbol of "subjectivity" that farmers could enjoy, and admitted with regret that in recent years it had been taken away from citizens. “It's also about a certain kind of freedom, to do whatever you want on your farm," Kołodziejczak adds. "This is subjectivity for the farmer. Therefore, I am in favor of providing farmers with the freedom to consume this alcohol for their own use.”
A similar viewpoint was aired by another Parliament member. “We will stop pretending that Polish farmers do not produce moonshine for their own use, such as for weddings,” the representative said, pointing out the benefits of controlling the quality. “Just like they produce slivovitz, which Poland is famous for. It's high time they did it legally.”
It’s no secret that the subject of vodka and its consumption is woven throughout the history of our country. From the beginnings of the communist-era Polish People’s Republic all the way until 1996, it was the most frequently consumed alcoholic beverage among Poles. It has since fallen to second place, behind beer. The cause is simple: in the PRL era and in the beginning of Poland’s transformation from a communist economy to a capitalist one, vodka didn’t have much competition. Available beers were of terrible quality, and, aside from homemade wines, the only ones available were Bulgarian sophia or kadarka.
Over the past few years, vodka drinking has been trending downwards, though it still is regularly consumed throughout Poland. The newest data released from market researcher NielsenIQ show that in the last twelve months alone, Poles spent a combined 16.8 billion PLN (about 3.79 billion euro) on vodka. Compared to the previous year, consumption fell by nearly seven percent.
The Association of Employers of the Polish Spirits Industry, whose data covers the first half of 2023, has reported even worse results for vodka in Poland. “Sales of spirits on the internal market from January to June are 23.11% lower compared to the same period in 2022,” the Association wrote to us.
Many organizations fighting alcoholism have long been demanding a ban on the sale of alcohol in small bottles.
Poles no longer want the biggest bang for their buck in terms of alcohol percentage, which is where the analogies with the Polish People's Republic end. Nowadays, if we choose vodka, we choose the more expensive one. Hence, sales of the flagship product in this category, pure vodka from the mid-price shelf, decreased the most.
However, there is something that distinguishes Poland from other countries. Namely, we are a world leader in the sale and consumption of the so-called “monkeys”: vodkas in small bottles between 100 and 200 ml.
Monkey is a new category for us, which has created completely new behaviors, methods of use and habits of consumers. “‘Monkeys’ first appeared on our market fourteen years ago. One of Polmos then released vodka in a 100 ml package for 5 PLN [a little over one euro]. The idea on the business end was to get women involved in drinking. Because drinking vodka by a woman was considered something bad and had negative connotations. The research showed that if women want to drink vodka, they should do so discreetly,” says Krzysztof Brzózka, former president of the State Agency for Solving Alcohol-related Problems. “And you can easily put the monkey in a purse and it won't be visible in the purse. They are flavored, for example, with lemon or orange, and are treated as a kind of lemonade that can be discreetly taken sip after sip,” he adds.
According to the Synergion report "Where does the little vodka flow" carried out a few years ago, 3 million Poles buy “monkeys” every day. The study also found that more than 1 billion small bottles of alcohol are expected to be sold annually.
However, these data are questioned by the Association of Employers of the Polish Spirits Industry.
“The average number of small bottles of vodka sold daily is less than 1.4 million packages, which shows that the value presented in the report is twice overstated,” the association stated, citing data from producers.
The association only respects sales data, but has no objections to other findings resulting from the study. They show that small vodka bottles, thanks to their widespread availability, low price and handy format, are extremely egalitarian: they are bought by all social and professional groups. Blue-collar workers are the first among customers, followed by young people (20-25 years old) and retirees.
That is why many organizations fighting alcoholism have long been demanding a ban on the sale of alcohol in small bottles. The Ministry of Health even drafted a bill providing for this. However, it never reached the Sejm.
But, like the entire vodka market, sales of small bottles have also been facing a downward trend in Poland.
“Over the last 12 months, the sales volume of these smallest bottles has decreased by 7.4%. compared to the same time a year earlier,” says Anna Wagner from NielsenIQ. “These results are not surprising, she says, adding that “still, 82 percent of Poles are affected by the deteriorating financial situation and, according to consumers' declarations, alcohol and other pleasure categories are removed from shopping lists first in order to cope with the household budget.” However, new taxes also contributed to higher prices.
This is not good news for market leaders. Here, CEDC holds the lead, until recently controlled by Russian billionaire Roustam Tarika, and currently in the hands of the Polish Maspex Group., which controls 48 percent of the market, and such vodkas as Żubrówka and Soplica.
Polish Bitter Vodka for the Stomach (Żołądkowa Gorzka) is part of the long tradition in Poland of infusing vodka with fruit and herbs known as nalewka.
The situation on the vodka market is clear: prices are rising, which means that Poles are less likely to buy vodka in stores, both in larger and smaller packages. Michał Kołodziejczak's idea to enable the production of moonshine for personal use could, as the leader of Agrounia probably hopes, gain support among consumers for the new government. But this wasn’t an opposition-only idea, and people associated with PiS had similar plans.
Before the 2019 elections, the then Minister of Agriculture, Jan Krzysztof Ardanowski, promised to legalize the production of alcohol on farms, a program which was called "Bimber plus" in the media. “I will strive to legalize the production of spirits, tinctures and distillates in Poland,” he announced at the time.
What would his plan look like? According to the minister, the farmer will be able to prepare the mash and place it in sealed barrels, which will then be processed in the distillery. Ardanowski also announced that after the legalization of spirits and distillates, it will be possible to exempt their producers from half of the excise tax. He assured that he had already discussed this matter with the Ministry of Finance. “If we succeed, we will do it before the elections, and if not, we will do it after the elections, but we will not abandon the topic,” declared the minister, assuring that Polish vodka is "our national treasure, with a 500-year-old tradition, which is part of the Polish table, our culture."
The consumption of illegal alcohol poses a threat to the life and health of consumers.
Some, including Krzysztof Brzózka, hope not. “Over the last dozen or so years, the idea of legalizing moonshine has been revived among politicians who are not fully versed in the social determinants of alcohol use. This is often accompanied by a lack of imagination about the possible scale of the so-called home or family production,” he says.
Unsurprisingly, the entire spirits industry is also opposed, warning that the legalization of moonshine means a decrease in revenues to the state budget from excise duty. Meanwhile, in 2022 alone, revenues from excise duty on spirits amounted to PLN 10.5 billion (2.37 billion euro).
“The high excise duty on strong alcohols makes this sector particularly vulnerable to the phenomenon of unregistered consumption, including the gray zone and the black market,” the Association of Employers of the Polish Spirits Industry wrote, adding that “about 80 percent illegal alcohols are spirit drinks.” According to the Association, sanitized industrial alcohol is already sold to consumers in markets as moonshine from farmers and forest moonshiners.
“Allowing farmers to produce spirits for their own use may contribute to the development of this practice and silent consent of unaware consumers to obtain strong alcohol from an unknown source. Illegal alcohol causes losses not only for the state budget. Its consumption poses a threat to the life and health of consumers,” adds the Association.