On my right I recognise the labels Dorota gave me. Behind the locked glass doors I see what I was looking for: my Polish whisky.
I feel a Cold War breeze when I am entering the vast empty lobby of the Wyborowa Company (formerly known as V&S Luksusowa Zielona Góra S. A.) in Zielona Gora, Poland. After having hit the bell on the counter I hear the sound of boots coming down the stairs. A girl with a friendly smile dressed in a navy blue outfit gestures me to follow. "I have been trying to get in touch with you….".
I notice that she does not really feel at ease with my English. She leads me to the empty chair next to the coffee machine and says: "You sit, you wait, I go." Nothing Polish in that, so I obey. She positions herself two metres away from me. Standing in some sort of soldier's mode with her hands behind her back looking straight at me.
I could do with a wee dram now. Then there is the factory bell. It's harsh and sharp and a flock of working people leave their offices in silence.
Good old George Orwell must have got some of his 1984 ideas from here.
Another female manager, answering to the wonderful name of Agnieszka Baranowska, comes up to me too closely, gently touches my arm and speaks in a soft voice: "What do you really come for?" Oh, this is how you melt chocolate.
Again I explain to her that I write about whisky and that her Wyborowa Company could be in our magazine.
Dorota bites her lips, thinks and says: "We show you Dark Whisky in memory room. Tomorrow morning... here", pointing to the floor. When we again shake hands I can't resist making a polite bow to underline my gratitude.
Dorota and Agnieszka show up nine o'clock sharp. How disciplined. They are in a completely different mood this morning: open, friendly and dressed for the occasion in Scottish skirts and matching blouses. We enter the memory room. I can see that Dorota and Agnieszka are nervous. On the left I see a huge glass exhibition case covering the entire round wall. I say Oh and Ah and my two hosts nod approvingly. Our non verbal communication is our lingua franca today. A silent tasting would perfectly fit in here later on. At the end of World War II a few distilleries had been able to survive and got organised in Polmos in 1946. Polmos is the acronym for Polski Monopol Spirytusowy or Polish Spirit Monopoly.
It was not before 1992 that Dark Blend was launched.
The display in the far end corner reminds me of former East German art: no fringes, straight lines and colourless.
It is Agnieszka who apologizes that the two Dark Whisky awards are not on display; "I find out and send you," she says. I settle down at the long wooden table and take in my tasting mode. Ready for the moment supreme, the tasting. I am flabbergasted when Dorota brings me the bad news: "No tasting, Fred. But you can buy in shop Piotr i Pawtel". She must have seen my desperate gaze. I cannot imagine going from this place empty handed: "Have you at least got the tasting notes ?" "I am afraid I cannot give you," she says with a red rash coming up from her white collar. But there's always a bright side to everything: at least they have given me the address of the local alcohol sklep.
The girl at the local Oddbins 'Piotr i Pawtel' has to disappoint me again: "No Dark Whisky, but he knows," pointing to the man next to me who turns out to be a Pernod Ricard representative. Mr Jaros Barnicki is more than willing to take us to a 'real' liquor store where we buy our bottle for €11 (700cl). I take one of the smaller tasting cups (7cl) from my old scouting set and pour some Dark Whisky gently in the aluminium cup. At that moment I feel my driver taking some sort of U turn. Luckily enough the samples in Poland are about 25 cl. The outside temperature is minus five degrees Celsius. Not the ideal tasting circumstances, but then again, have you ever heard Sir Ernest Shackleton complain about this?
At first sight the colour is amber gold.The nose is a bit rough, not too subtle, but that could be due to the freezing cold. Still I sense some heather and a hint of vanilla. Not at all a smell I dislike. So far so good for the nose. I take a tiny sip and immediately feel welcomed by this dark Polish friend.
I notice quite a full but neutral taste and some sherry flavours in the distance. From the back seat I can see my driver's eyes in the rearview mirror drinking with me. I reassure him that - as the representative of 'his' blend - it's not a disaster at all, it's even a pleasant surprise. The finish is short and a little bit disappointing, but I got used to that today. In time I finish my small investigation when Jaros hits the brakes.
I will certainly continue tonight, feeling my last two Dutch cigars safely in my inside pocket. I wonder if my Polish surprise will be as reluctant with my two cigars as my two Polish ladies were with me today.