Vodka has often gotten the short end of the stick within the spirits industry, often sidelined for spirits with more complex and distinctly diverse flavor profiles. But Polish native Tadeusz (Tad) Dorda, founder of Chopin Vodka, has dedicated his life to changing the perception of vodka worldwide by shifting the conversation and talking about its true intricacies.
Often nicknamed “the grandfather” of vodka, Dorda is largely credited with creating the first super-premium vodka. Today, Chopin is renowned for its portfolio of three single-ingredient (potato, rye, and wheat) vodkas alongside Chopin Family Reserve, aged in 50-year-old Polish oak barrels. “Each spirit has a distinct flavor profile, mouthfeel, and occasion,” says Dorda, He finds that vodka carries the authentic flavor of his Polish heritage — in fact, his potato distillation has received some of the world’s highest accolades for potato-based vodka including double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and gold medals from the Chicago Beverage Testing Institute.
And while other brands tend to sell out to larger conglomerates, Chopin has maintained a small, family-owned operation entirely in-house at its distillery in Poland. “We are the last Polish vodka brand owned and operated by a Polish family and one of the few in the world that owns a distillery and farms raw ingredients,” explains Dorda.
This year, Chopin celebrates its 30th anniversary with an array of activations and further appreciation for the Eastern European spirit that so delicately translates the local terroir to liquid libation. Dorda spoke to VinePair about why vodka is his life’s passion, and why a shift to bring awareness to vodka is imminent as he continues his efforts to appeal for a vodka appellation.
1. This year is Chopin’s 30th anniversary. Could you tell me about its history and how you maintain it as a family business?
What makes Chopin so special is that our family and team created it to make the best vodka; it wasn’t created in a boardroom by a marketing agency with an exit strategy. The brand launched in 1993 to celebrate Polish heritage and craftsmanship. It was the first luxury vodka brand in the world, which created the category and changed the industry.
Over the last 30 years, vodka has become my life’s passion, which is now continuing into the second generation through my daughter and nephews who work for the business. We have been approached many times to sell the brand, but I want to continue making vodka the way I always have, with my family and with integrity.
2. How do you translate your heritage through vodka?
Chopin’s mission has been the same since the start: to shift the conversation around vodka from being tasteless, colorless, odorless to a nuanced spirit meant to be sipped, savored, and appreciated.
Vodka was traditionally made in Eastern Europe’s “vodka belt,” but the first written record of the word vodka was in 1405 in Poland. Vodka was originally distilled from local ingredients like potato, rye, wheat, barley, and oats. However, vodkas are now made internationally from all different ingredients, from grapes to expired donuts. For us, upholding the tradition and craftsmanship of artisanal Polish vodka is important. In every aspect, Chopin celebrates Poland and represents how traditional vodka was and should still be made.
3. What does it mean to you that Chopin is considered a super-premium vodka?
Since 1993, our mission has been to change how vodka is perceived. In 1993, no one believed there could be such a thing as “luxury vodka.” Today, we are still working to elevate the category and push the boundaries of vodka through extensive experimentation with distillation, ingredients, and aging.
The truth is that vodka is a very nuanced spirit with flavor profiles and textures that come from the raw ingredients, the region those ingredients are sourced, and how the spirit is made. Consumers understand this concept in every other category, from Scotch to wine, but unfortunately, for many, this is a foreign concept in vodka. For example, Chopin’s Potato Vodka has more body, a creamier mouthfeel, and green apple and vanilla notes. In contrast, Chopin’s Wheat Vodka has a much lighter body and a sweet, floral bouquet on the nose.
Luxury vodka is about the ingredients, care, and craftsmanship that go into every bottle. We make every drop of Chopin at our family-owned distillery in Krzesk, Poland. This is unusual as most vodka brands buy pre-distilled vodka from multinational corporations, bottle it, and put their own label on it. Our vodka is created in our distillery’s original copper column from 1896. We also farm some of our own ingredients and work with family-owned farms within a 20-mile radius of our distillery, many of which we have worked with for generations.
4. Why do you choose to make varietal vodkas, including potato, rye, and wheat options?
We approach vodka as a fine winemaker would. No one would ever say that all red wine tastes the same — we understand that different grapes grown in different climates have different flavor profiles and textures, as well as different foods and occasions for pairings. The same is also true with vodka.
We were the first brand in the world to proudly distill varietal vodka using traditional, regional ingredients like potatoes, rye, and wheat grown in Eastern Europe. The potato vodka has a creamy flavor profile and a viscous, full-bodied texture, making it simply the best vodka for a Martini. The rye vodka is spicy and vibrant with a medium body, which means it goes well with a Bloody Mary or a cocktail with a sweeter profile. Finally, our wheat vodka is the lightest spirit in the collection, with a sweet flavor profile and floral notes on the nose.
We have distilled over 100 types of vodka, including 60 different types of potatoes and strains of ancient grains that are no longer commercially farmed. We also barrel-age our spirits. We do this to pay homage to how vodka was traditionally made in our region and to continue pushing the category forward. For example, Family Reserve is the first young potato vodka in the world, and we are very proud of that.
5. Could you tell us more about the Chopin Family Reserve?
Chopin Family Reserve is a very special vodka. It is distilled from “summer potatoes,” which are potatoes that are harvested in July — about three months earlier than usual. These summer potatoes are small and have not yet developed skin. They have a brighter and greener flavor profile and have not yet acquired the earthiness of an autumn potato. We then rest the liquid for two years in 50-year-old Polish oak barrels, giving the vodka a mellow yet full flavor profile. There are no other vodkas like it in existence.
6. How do you think the vodka scene would change with an appellation of origin, and why do you believe it necessary?
I have dedicated my life to advocating for vodka. I am passionate about this as a distiller, but also because I would like to elevate the national spirit of my home country, Poland. Vodka is a part of our national heritage — just as tequila is for Mexico or Scotch is for Scotland — and it deserves the same amount of protection that those categories have.
At the moment, vodka has no appellation of origin, meaning that technically it can be made anywhere out of anything — even in countries with no history of vodka distillation and from ingredients from which it was never historically distilled. To us, distilling vodka from donuts in California is like saying you can make tequila from lemons in China. I believe that the lack of appellation creates misunderstandings about vodka and the misconception that vodka is somehow “less-than.”
7. What are the sustainability efforts at Chopin?
Because we are located in the farming heartland of Poland, we take our commitment to the land seriously. We work closely with farmers to ensure that the crops used to make Chopin are grown ecologically. Chopin Potato Vodka also has zero production waste. Once we ferment and distill the potatoes, we are left with a rich potato mash. We give this mash back to our local farmers for no cost, and they use it to feed their livestock and fertilize their fields.
At the Chopin Distillery, we have always prided ourselves on crafting single-ingredient vodkas utilizing naturally grown ingredients without chemicals or pesticides. We have taken this mission a step further with Chopin Rye Organic Vodka, which recently launched in the United States. It is EU- and USDA-certified organic, meaning the rye used to grow it has to meet the most stringent requirements of ecological processing and is grown without pesticides, artificial fertilizers, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
8. Tell me about Chopin’s recent efforts to aid Ukrainian refugees.
Our distillery is located only about 70 miles away from the Ukrainian border. When the conflict erupted, millions of Ukrainian refugees streamed into Poland, and the entire nation rose to the occasion to take them in. Every person I know was involved, which was an inspiring thing to see in the face of such tragedy over the border.
At Chopin, we donated 100 percent of the proceeds of all products sold through our website to World Central Kitchen, Chef José Andrés’ nonprofit organization dedicated to providing meals for people in need, including Ukrainian refugees in the country and in neighboring countries. We have also hired five refugees at our factory. We are glad that we were able to help in even a small way.
9. How do you like to drink your vodka?
I prefer to sip my vodka without any mixers. I usually sip it neat or on the rocks, depending on the occasion, the weather, and how I am feeling. Sometimes, I mix my vodka 50/50 with warm water so it feels similar to sake in terms of strength and flavor profile. Adding the water really opens up the spirit to bring out its full flavor.
10. How will Chopin celebrate its 30th anniversary?
We are marking our 30th anniversary with a year of activations, launches, and celebrations in honor of the milestone. In May, I will travel across the country to host vodka masterclasses for mixologists and tastings for consumers. The goal is not only to share the story of Chopin Vodka, but the rich history of the vodka category as a whole. We are also launching two new products this year — one is a very special limited release that we can’t share details on yet, and the other is a high-proof vodka called Bartender’s Choice. It is a 60 percent proof rye made specifically for bartenders to stand up in flavor within a cocktail and combat the flavors from being watered down with ice and other mixers. We’re especially excited about this product because it speaks to our brand ethos and fights to prove vodka does have flavor! Coupled with the launch, we’re also hosting a competition calling all bartenders from around the country to share their best Chopin recipes. I will also travel to major cities in the U.S. to personally educate bartenders on vodka and its nuances.