By Franz Scheurer
Bison grass, also known as sweet grass, buffalo grass, manna grass, Seneca grass or holy grass is a fragrant, aromatic grass that grows in Northern Europe (north of Switzerland), Canada and parts of North America. Its strong aroma is due to a chemical compound called coumarin, which is found in many plants and has a scent of fresh hay. It is interesting to note that there is no scent left after the grass weathered its first frost.
Bison grass is used as herbal medicine and was used in antiquity like rose petals, thrown into the path of dignitaries, imparting a fresh, aromatic scent when trodden on. It was used in the Middle Ages in France as a flavouring agent for lollies, soft drinks and in the manufacture of perfumes and was revered by the American indigenous population as a sacred plant, used in peace and healing ceremonies.
Today its fame comes from Żubrówka Bison Vodka (40% a/vol), a vodka made in Poland near the modern Belarusian border. After distillation the vodka (made from 100% local rye) is mixed with a tincture made of Bison grass (Hierochloe odorata) grown in the Bialowieza Forest (which spans the two borders) and a blade of grass is placed in each bottle of Żubrówka. The tincture and the blade of grass add a yellowish hue to the vodka and impart a strong, wonderfully fresh aroma. Although the flavour compound suggests hay, my nose perceives aromatics not unlike the Yerba Mate grass (generally used as a herb tea) from South America. Żubrówka is a wonderful vodka, full of sweet, herbal flavours, mouth-filling with a long, vanilla and lavender scented finish, without ever being sweet. I prefer to sip it, from a small, bulbous glass, at room temperature. It’s too good to waste as a mixer or lose all the aromas by freezing it, although poured over a good, home-made vanilla ice cream might be a sacrilege I’d partake in.
Look out for a bottle at your local bottle shop, it’s worth it!