1. The Issue
Zubrowka, or bison grass vodka, has been the center of trademark and export rights disputes after the Polish government began the process of privatizing the Polish vodka industry. Polmos-Bialystok, the largest and one of the original Zubrowka producers, sought to attain the export rights to Zubrowka, which had been exclusively owned by the French company Pernod Ricard. The increasingly profitable market for Zubrowka in Europe had both sides competing for exclusive export rights for ten years. After much bargaining and discussion between the Polish government, the European Union (EU) and the two companies, Polmos-Bialystok has since received exclusive rights to export its product in Europe.1 Intellectual property rights were also of concern to the Polish vodka industry. In EU accession documentation and conferences, Poland has made known its desire to be the exclusive producer of the bison grass vodka in the EU.2 At a time when many Polish companies are being acquired by European firms, Zubrowka remains as a unique Polish vodka. Faced with the quick pace of privatization and EU accession preparations, both the Polish government and the Zubrowka producers have sought to protect a distinctly Polish product that emerged centuries ago in Poland's primeval forests of the Northeast. Zubrowka vodka is perceived as a part of Polish history and culture and is also a representation of the cultural, historical and scientific significance of the primeval Bialowieza forest and the European bison which roam its lands.
Zubrowka, or bison-grass vodka, is made with rye grain and then infused with the flavor of “sweet grass” or Hierochloe odorata in Latin, from the primeval Bialowieza Forest. The vodka is 40 percent alcohol, is greenish yellow in color and has an herbal sweet taste. The vodka's flavor is a result of the infusion of one or two kilograms of bison grass per one thousand liters of vodka. Then, a long blade of this grass is typically placed in each bottle. Hierochloe odorata contains coumarin, a naturally occurring chemical which was originally used to flavor tobacco and cakes and has been found to display various medicinal properties, such as a blood thinner. Zubrowka contains only about a dozen milligrams of coumarin per liter3
Zubrowka's origins date back to the eighth century when someone had perhaps accidentally combined alcohol with medicinal herbs. There is still much debate as to whether it originated in present day Poland or Russia since discerning this truth is made difficult by the frequently changing borders in the region throughout history. By the 16th century there were approximately seventy-two herbal vodkas. Rye, buckwheat and oats were used to create the vodka. Its impurity was masked by different spices, herbs and roots. Zubrowka itself became popular after the Polish-Lithuanian accord in 1569 when the Polish royal court would rest at varoius hunting lodges in the Bialowieza Forest on their way to the northeast. Zubrowka first became widely distributed by the J.A. Baczewski Liquor and Liqueur Distillery in Lvov in the seventeenth century.4
The grass from which the vodka is made is especially liked by the European bison that roam the Bialowieza Forest. The bison, or zubr as they are called in Polish, have attracted much attention. From the 14th century onward they were some of the only remaining wild bison herds on the European continent until 1919. Efforts were made in the 1920s to introduce bison from zoos and private refuges into the Bialowieza Forest and today there are more than three hundred. The historical and cultural significance of the vodka has not surprisingly created strong reactions to protect what is considered by Poles to be a uniquely Polish product.5
Zubrowka was a lucrative export product during the Communist period and is once again regaining popularity in the post-Cold War era as more and more Western and Japanese consumers develop a taste for the greenish vodka. Polish producers have suffered due to the decreasing popularity of vodka amongst younger Poles and rampant smuggling of cheaper versions of the drink from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.6 As part of Poland 's privatization process, and especially with forthcoming EU accession, the Polish government put up its vodka distilleries for sale. During the time when most other Polish industries were being privatized, the state owned distilleries known as Polmos, remained under state ownership due to the complex and politically sensitive nature of selling off the sector, especially to foreign companies. In 1999, Bialystok, the Zubrowka brand producer won the rights to Zubrowka and subsequently registered a patent for the name, the bottle and the trademark blade of bison grass inserted in each. In the subsequent compromise between the two sides, Agros secured exclusive export rights to Wyborowa, another popular brand of Polish vodka, manufactured by Polmos Poznan, and non-exclusive rights to Zubrowka manufactured by Polmos-Bialystok.7 Recently in April 2003 as part of its EU accession, Zubrowka, defined as vodka made with bison grass from the Bialowieza Forest, can only be produced in Poland with ingredients from Poland.8
3. Related Cases
Budweis, Scotch, Grappa, Pisco and Tequila are cases which are most closely related to the case of Polish Zubrowka because they are all alcoholic drinks which were or are involved in intellectual property rights disputes centered on their cultural significance and geographic origins. These cases are evidence of the desire on the part of many producers/countries to maintain the cultural and geographical identification associated with a particular alcoholic product by pursuing exclusive rights to produce and/or label their product. The Budweis case involves a dispute between the United States and the Czech Republic over the right to use the name “Budweiser.” The Scotch case is likewise similar since the distillers in Scotland want the sole right to label their products as “Scotch” because the name pertains to a specific region.
This is also the case with Zubrowka vodka, since the name means “from the bison” which roam in the Bialowieza forest in the northeastern part of Poland . The cases of Grappa, Pisco and Tequila also involve similar issues as cultural geographic indicators. The Scotch and Grappa case are especially relevant since both cases involved the petitioning of EU bodies for exclusive trademark rights, as occurred in the Zubrowka case. The Feta2 case is also very similar to the Zubrowka case, because it involves debate about the exclusive rights to label a product “feta” cheese only if that product in fact is from Greece as Poland sought to establish the same exclusivity for Zubrowka vodka. The Feta2 however, can be differentiated from the alcohol cases since it is not only the geographic origin of the product which is relevant but also the production process and the ingredients coming from a particular region make the product what it is. For further information on geographic indications and international trade, consult the GIANT webpage.
4. Author and Date: Michalina Koziol (November 2003)
II. Legal Clusters
5. Discourse and Status: Agreement and Complete
6. Forum and Scope: European Union and Region
7. Decision Breadth: Number of Parties Affected: 25 (EU members and future EU members)
8. Legal Standing: Treaty
The conditions for export and import of Polish distilled alcoholic beverages such as Zubrowka are derived from several free trade agreements signed with the EU, European Free Trade Agreement, Central European Free Trade Agreement and from membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). These agreements define the conditions of foreign trade in the distilled beverage sector and of support for its production. They set limits on customs duties, provide a timetable for reducing them, indicate permissible exceptions in regard to the imposition of quotas, and detail the circumstances and conditions in which protective clauses can be invoked.9
Favorable Uruguay Round conditions were negotiated for the Polish spirits industry in the WTO's Agreement on Agriculture in 1995. A ban instituted on imports of spirits and unflavored vodkas introduced by Poland in 1991, was abolished by the WTO agreement on July 1, 1995 .10
Disputes over the trademark and export rights to Zubrowka vodka which began with the privatization of the Polish spirits industry in the early 1990s, were not only local disputes between the vodka producer, Polmos-Bialystok and the Agros Holdings S.A., dispute also came to involve the European Union as the Polish spirits industry sought exclusive rights to the name, production and export of Zubrowka. In 1999 Polmos-Bialystok, the Zubrowka brand producer won the rights to Zubrowka and subsequently registered a patent for the name, the bottle and the trademark blade of bison grass inserted in each. Polmos-Bialystok had the rights to distribute the product within Poland and to Russia however export rights to distribute Zubrowka in Europe had been sold earlier to Agros Holdings S.A. Eighty percent of Agros shares are owned by the French alcoholic beverage distributing company, Pernod-Ricard.11
The manufacturers of Zubrowka expressed doubts on the legality of Pernod Ricard's export rights claiming that according to a 1971 regulation, Agros was to register the trademarks on behalf of the Polmos companies and not in behalf of itself. In July 2000 the Polish government approved a new law on industrial property rights that would award Agros's export rights to the producers.12 Pernod-Ricard then pushed for the law to be overturned through pressure from French and European Union diplomats. The constitutional tribunal set up to review the law eventually ruled in favor of Agros. In the subsequent compromise between the two sides, Agros secured exclusive export rights to Wyborowa, another popular brand of Polish vodka, manufactured by Polmos Poznan, and non-exclusive rights to Zubrowka manufactured by Polmos-Bialystok.13
Zubrowka gained further protection as a uniquely Polish, flavored vodka produced with raw materials unique to a particular region in Poland, and not reproducible in any other country, with the accession negotiations with the European Union. A provision of the Polish Ministry of Agriculture's bill on spirits production in 2002 banned the use of imported raw materials for the production of any type of vodka in Poland. This provision will be mirrored on the EU level once Poland is admitted into the European Union in May 2004.
Already in April 2003 as part of the EU accession negotiations, the flavored vodka Zubrowka, defined as vodka made with bison grass from the Bialowieza Forest can only be produced in Poland with ingredients obtained within Poland 's territory. In the section pertaining to agriculture in the EU accession treaty with the other entering Central and Eastern European states, it mentions that “ "Poland may require that for the production of vodka on its territory labelled as ‘Polish Vodka/Polska Wódka' solely specific raw materials of Polish origin are used or following traditional specifications and within the context of a quality policy pursued by Poland." The treaty continues by adding geographical designations to various spirits including Zubrowka which is defined as an “herbal vodka from the North Podlasie Lowland aromatized with an extract of bison grass.” Therefore, a vodka can only be called by the name “Zubrowka” if it produced in Poland with ingredients obtained from a particular area in Poland.14
9. Geographic Locations
The temperate continental cool climate sustains a mean annual temperature of 6.8 degrees Celcius and snow cover on average persists for 92 days of the year.
In comparison with other European lowland forests, Bialowieza has experienced little disturbance from humans. The vast stretch of the ancient palaearctic forest contain many relic plant and animal species typical of primeval forests. It also contains some cultural heritage as a total of 184 burial sites were found from the 11th and 12th centuries in addition to several primitive bee-keeping sites. The wooded scenery and virgin forest of the area have also been mentioned in art and literature over the centures, such as with Russian landscape painter I.I. Shishkin, French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, painter N.S. Samokish, Byelorussian poet N.A. Gusovsky and Russian revolutionary writer A.I. Gertsen and N.P. Ogarev.
The park itself is comprised of a strict core zone of 4,747 hectacres and a protective zone that is 276 ha around the village. Activities such as tree felling, hunting and the use of insecticides is prohibited. Only guided visitors and researchers are permitted entrance on foot; motor vehicles are banned. The 'Hwozna' Protective District covers about 5,155 ha. It is composed of largely mosaic old growth forest stands and certain conifer species that are not located anywhere else in the park. 14b
10. Sub-National Factors: No
11. Type of Habitat:
Snow Forests (Cool)
Polish Vodka Consumption
Poland is not only an important vodka producer it is also the 4th largest consumer of vodka in the world. The market size for alcoholic beverages in Poland is US $4 billion at retail. The structure of consumption of different beverages is approximately 32 per cent vodka, 24 per cent wine, and 44 per cent beer.17 Every year 3.8 billion liters of vodka and other spirits are produced in Poland. The Polish market for spirits and vodka is estimated at over 200 million liters. Annual consumption of vodka in Poland per capita is 5.7 liters.17a
The Polish Vodka Industry
Poland has an excise tax which applies to certain imported goods as well as to those produced within the country. Usually this tax would be levied on top of the customs tariff. Imports of the goods to which excise taxes are applied are at higher rates than excise taxes for domestically produced goods. In the case of vodka and spirits the excise tax rates are 95 percent and 190 percent respectively. Export items are however, free of the excise tax.18 In 1988 Polmos produced approximately 172m liters of alcohol, but by 1997 this had fallen to just 100m litres. In the first half of 1998, vodka production decreased by nearly 30% and capacity from some 42 factories was running at 50% of what it had been originally after higher excise taxes mentioned above, were levied. The downturn in consumption, according to official statistic was 8.7% in 1994, 10% in 1995 and 9% in 1996. When excise duties were increased in March 1997 sales fell 48% and revenues fell by PLN 140m. In the first half of 1998 the production of flavoured vodkas fell by 28.3% to 58,600hl and production of clear vodkas dropped by nearly 15% over the same period. Research on the Polish alcoholic beverage market points to changes in patterns of alcohol consumption. Since 1990, the consumption of beer has risen by nine liter per capita. Vodka, on the other hand, is experiencing declining demand for obvious reasons. Beer has a significant price advantage and for the price of a liter of vodka you could buy around 6.9 bottles of beer in 1990. Last year you could buy 7.5.19
The inflow of large quantities of smuggled alcoholic drinks from across the borders is another problem for the industry. Smugglers bring vodka from the Czech Republic sold at half the price in Poland. Borders are also illegally crossed by large tank trucks full of spirits that are not subject to customs clearance. Poland's domestic vodka market had indeed experienced great declines in domestic demand so it began to turn increasingly to exports where they ended up doing very well.20
Because of the industry's increasing dependence on exports to maintain profits, many Polish distilleries fought hard to maintain trademark and export rights. After a long lobbying process, the European Commission had finally accepted Polish motions for the protection of Polish traditional vodka brands such as Zubrowka. The ruling approving the "Polish Vodka" general concept means that a number of particular brands may only bear their names if produced in Poland and according to a specifically defined "traditional recipe." This decision is effectively worth millions of euro to Polish producers/factories but it also means the necessary imposition of stricter limitations on production methods. The three brands given the most protection under the ruling are the Zubrowka "bison grass" brand, Krupnik and Rosolis. "Wisniowka-Polish Cherry" was also approved, despite objections from Spain that the term may potentially lead to confusion with Sherry, for which Madrid holds exclusivity.21
|Percent change YTD2002- YTD2003|
|Percent of total||
Source: USITC Trade Database
Alcoholic Drinks Sales
|Alcoholic drinks, sales volume, m litres||1741.2||1850.0||2024.1||2104.1||2280.4||2385.4||2498.0||2530.2||2557.0|
Source: Economist Intelligence Unit
17. Impact of Trade Restriction: Low
18. Industry Sector: Foods
19. Exporters and Importers: Poland and Many
Poland ranks very highly among countries who export vodka to the United States. Its exports to the US, Russia, Germany, Italy and Canada were valued at US $9.6m during the first five months of 1998 with the US accounting for US $3.9m and Russia US $1.4m. Among other Polish vodkas on the listing of 110 best-selling brands are Krakus, at 33, Premium, at 59 and Zubrowka vodka at 97. Five out of the leading 15 vodka brands in the world originate from Poland. Zubrowka's primary markets for export include the United States, Germany, Italy, Canada, Russia and Japan, where Polmos-Bialystok sells 30,000 cases a year. Polmos-Bialystok which is the largest and original producer of Zubrowka in Poland, itself exports its product to Japan but works with Agros S.A. for exports to European and North American markets.22
20. Environmental Problem Type:
21. Name, Type, and Diversity of
Name: Bison Bonasus
Diversity: Lowland sub-species
= 1,000 free-ranging animals
22. Resource Impact and Effect: Low and Scale
23. Urgency and Lifetime: Low and 100s of Years
24. Substitutes: Like Products
Pawel Sidlo, of the Polish Society for the Protection of Birds, has stated: "Historically, and for the species it contains, Bialowieza is as important to Europe as the Amazon rainforest." The natural wealth of the forest is due to the century old continuation of preservation of the area by different rulers throughout European history, the Dukes of Lithuania, the Kings of Poland and then the Czars of Russia. The forest had received a great deal of protection because of its special status as a favored hunting ground for royalty. Today it boasts an amazing 5,500 species of flora, as much as 3,500 different types of fungi and 25,000 species of fauna, many carnivorous and hoofed animals such as wolves, bison and lynx. The forest is an important laboratory because of the continuity of its natural processes for 10,000 years. The entire Belarussian side of the forest has been a national park since 1991 while only 17% of the Polish side has received protection under national park status. In recent years there has been increased pressure placed upon the Polish government and the European Union from a variety of NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund to protect the entire Bialowieza forest by granting it national park status.24
The dynamic structure and natural processes that have been occuring in Bialowieza may easily be perturbed by forest management methods. For example, woodpeckers or other birds feed on spruce cones by pushing them into the bark of old trees, such as oak. This combination of old oaks and woodpeckers feeding on spruce seeds tends to create clumps of spruce trees which helps to create gaps in the forest stands necessary during possible future infestation by round-headed bark beetles. If this natural forest pattern is disturbed through pest control, then the process of spruce and oak regeneration is unable to continue. In the past pressure from the local logging and timber industries threatened the forest, however, cheap timber from Russia has depressed the local industry. The importance of protecting the forest within the framework of the local economy is a vital part of the sustainable development of the entire area. 25
The Forest is important not just as the habitat of many rare fauna such as the European bison, but is also contains the last preserved remnants of European Lowland primeval woods. A variety of organisms which had become extinct in other places have survived here as a result of many centuries of protection. In the Bialowieza Forest there are many common species but they often take forms and sizes that are especially unique and cannot be found anywhere else, specifically the various tree specimens. Bialowieza Forest protection has allowed for not only the survival of single species but also for the survival of species groups and plant communities. Woodlands comprise about 96 percent of the entire Forest area. The remaining 4 percent consists of fields, meadows, roads, wastelands as well as flowing and standing waters. These non-wooded areas however, have begun to diminsh quickly as part of natural reforestation processes. About 47 percent of the Bialowieza Forest is deciduous forest, 37 percent is coniferous while wet deciduous and mixed forests are 14.5 percent of the area. Norway spruce is the most numerous, followed by Scotch pine, European alder, oak and several birch species.25c
It has been estimated that there are approximately 3-4 thousand fungi in the area of the Bialowieza Forest, a large percentage of which are mushrooms. The fungi group includes very diverse specimens from unicellular organisms and molds to mushrooms and others, with both soft and hard fruitbodies. The slime molds and lichens are particularly prevalent in the Bialowieza. There are as many as 400 species of lichens alone in the Forest, from the rarest rock lichens, to species growing on dead wood and soil. However, as a result of air pollution most of the sensitive lichen speices are either extinct or threatened of dying out. Numerous types of soft, edible mushrooms also grow within the Forest. Some of them such as cauliflower fungus, toothed coral fungus and morels used to be collected and consumed in the past but for this reason are now very rare and have been placed under legal protection.25d
Ecotourism is becoming an increasingly popular method for ensuring the survival of the forest, as much in the same way national parks are conserved in the United States. A joint project with WWF and the PAN Parks Organization hopes to create sustainable tourism in the area through the creation of hiking trails, lodging and camping sites, as well as special guided tours to observe the bison.26 While receiving great support from Polish naturalists and environmentalists, ecotourism has not received such a warm welcome by local inhabitants afraid of losing their way of life. The proposed expansion of the national park into the remaining areas of the national forest once Poland joins the European Union in the coming year has not been entirely favored by locals who have traditionally depended upon the forest's resources, related more to cultural practice rather than necessity. For example, with the expansion of the park, the Polish government has ceded to local cultural affinity for picking mushrooms. Locals and tourists will be allowed to pick mushrooms, but only those that are accessible by marked park trails. Criticism still remains from those that believe that such a resource as the Bialowieza Forest should be used, at least partially, especially in a country and an area of Poland that could use the extra income.
What is the role of Zubrowka in this conflict between environmental protection and human activities? According to Andrzej Bobiec, while Polmos-Bialystok, the producer of Zubrowka states that the grass used in the vodka comes from the Bialowieza Forest, the actual "bison grass" (Hierochloe odorata) is known from only one location in the Bialowieza Primeval Forest (BPF) and the species has a status of legal protection (no harvest is allowed). There is another, much more common species Hierochloe australis that is apparently grown outside the BPF. Zubrowka vodka production has not had a negative impact upon the BPF itself.27 Rather through its increased exportation to other European countries, the United States and Japan, it has acted to publicize the uniqueness not only of the bison which roam the forest, but also the need to protect such a precious relatively undisturbed habitat. The reintroduction of the bison into the forest after their extinction from the wild after World War I has allowed for the protection of their habitat. Increasing popularity of the vodka is helping to further the goals of ecotourism into the area as a means of further forest conservation and extension of national park status to the entire Bialowieza Primeval Forest. Zubrowka remains as a locally produced cultural product, involving the local environment and inhabitants and by publicizing this fact, it is helping to preserve cultural significance of the BPF, hopefully conveying the urgency to protect it.
25. Culture: Yes
Zubrowka is available in most European countries including France, Sweden and Germany and is also gaining popularity with Americans as it is increasingly targeted for export as a distinctively Polish drink. Often served with apple juice and ice, Zubrowka is seen as a uniquely Polish concoction. Zubrowka's unique flavor comes from the bison grass that grows in the Bialowieza Forest, home of the last remaining wild herd of European Bison (the largest land mammals in Europe). The aromatic wild grass that is consumed by the bison has been traditionally used as the key ingredient in the vodka. Since it is difficult to cultivate, many local families carefully guard the location of their harvesting-glades in the forest. In the village of Narewka, not far from the Bialowieza Forest, a local villager may earn a large sum of cash for large bundles of rough-cut grass that could support his family for a few months. After drying the grass for several days on racks local producers brush away any forest leaves or dirt from the grass and place it into boxes. The roots are then chopped off and may be sent across the village where Zosia sorts through the stalks, carefully discarding any discolored or bruised blades before cutting them exactly 20cm long and assembling them into neat bundles. The bison grass is sent on a short journey to the Polmos-Bialystok factory, which one smells rather than sees first. The bundles of grass are given an alcoholic bath, to preserve the unique forest scent. The maceration matures in large old oak barrels. In another part of the factory, a team working in the laboratory mixes alcohol distilled from rye grain with the macerated grass in just the right amounts to produce the vodka's distinctive faint greenish color. The unflavored vodka is made from rye grain from northeast Poland. Only winter varieties sown in the autumn are used because of their high starch content. Distillation follows the traditional method to ensure the correct chemical and organoleptic properties by using water from Polmos' own deep wells. Once this process is complete, the bottles proceed down the assembly lines where the final touch is added to each: a long blade of bison grass.28
26. Trans-Boundary Issues: No
27. Human Rights: No
28. Endnotes - Relevant Literature
 John Reed, "Export Rights Trouble Vodka Distillers" Financial Times. (London: September 4, 2000): 24.
 "Poland's Top Vodka Brand For Sale." BBC News Online: Business. (July 27, 2001) Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/low/business/1460122.stm
 John Reed., 24.
 "Zubrowka Zawsze Polska." Dziennik Polski. Available at: http://dzisiaj.dziennik.krakow.pl/archiwum/n.cgi?data=2003/04.12
 "Delayed Launch." Polish Vodka Website. Available at: http://www.polishvodka.com/pl/news, 1999
 World Trade Organization. "Trade Policy Review: Economic Reforms Lead to Robust Performance of Polish Economy." Available at: http://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp136_e.htm, June 2000
 John Reed, 24.
 "Spirits Production Bill Raises Industry Protests and Criticism." Polish News Bulletin. (February 27, 2002)
 John Reed., 24.
 European Union. "EU Accession Treaty 2003: Agriculture." Available at: http://www.europa.int.eu
 USITC Trade Database. Available at: http://dataweb.usitc.gov
 The Major Companies Database. "Polmos Bialystok, Przedsiebiorstwo, SA." Lexis-Nexis Business. (2003)
 Zbigniew Pakula. "A Market Full of Questions." European Drinks Buyer Magazine On-Line. Available at: http://www.drinksbuyereurope.com/index.jsp?page=articles&magazine_id=54, January/February 1999.
 "How to Export to Poland." Central and Eastern Europe Business Information Center. Available at: http://www.mac.doc.gov/Ceebic/countryr/poland/poexp.htm, June 2003
 Zbigniew Pakula.
 "Delayed Launch."
 Bialowieza National Park. Available at: http://bpn.com.pl/eng/spa.htm
[23a] Bialowieza Forest Campaign.
 World Wildlife Fund -- Poland: Bialowieza National Park. Available at: http://wwf.pl/bialowieza_en.php
 Andrzej Bobiec, "Bialowieza Primeval Forest:
The Largest Natural Deciduous Lowland Forest in Europe"
[25a] Jeroen Philippona. "Old Trees in the Netherlands and Western Europe." Available at: http://home.hetnet.nl/~gerdien14/english11.htm
[25b] Bialowieza National Park. Available at: http://bpn.com.pl/eng/spa.htm
 PAN Parks: Bialowieza National Park. Available at: http://www.panparks.org
 Andrzej Bobiec, 37.
 "Super Grass." Waitrose Food Illustrated. (October 1999) Available at: www.waitrose.com/food_drink/wfi/drinks/spiritsliqueursandcocktails/9910098.as