A Taste of Polish Myth
From fleeing the Yugoslavian civil war with nothing, to having Konik’s Tail stocked across Mayfair, Pleurat Shabani’s tale is one of craft and bloody mindedness
Article by Rupert Watkins
Pleurat Shabani really is a one man vodka band, “I do everything – marketing, bottling and the harvesting.” From the civil war in Croatia to the chic bars of the Connaught and Claridge’s, his account of creating Konik’s Tail is both inspiring and at times blackly funny. He had long wanted to make a super-premium spirit, having been fascinated by the entire process of how they are created, from the soil through to pouring the final result. Konik’s Tail is a blend of three grains: early winter wheat, spelt grain and golden rye, “spelt is a happy, dancing grain” Pleurat smiles, “it gives the spirit its very soft, sweet initial hit.” And it sure makes for a beautiful martini.
Born in Kosovo, his family lived in Croatia during the bitter civil war that wracked the country. “We never knew where our next meal was coming from” Pleurat recalls, also remembering the years as a teenager he had to live effectively underground, “there’s a numbness that creeps up on you; the fear you have done nothing with your life.” He came to London in 1994 with 400 Deutschmarks in his pocket. Barely speaking any English, he made his way to the only place he had heard of in the capital, Piccadilly Circus. Following a night in a hotel, that swallowed the bulk of his money, he started a job the next day cleaning lavatories.
After nine months, he got a similar job at Soho House but, along with other workers, was caught relaxing during a night shift and fired. At this point Pleurat was forced onto the streets. “When people talk about hitting bottom, I tell them I really have been there” he says, “you have the sense of being rejected by everyone.” He found the worst and most debilitating aspect was the silence at night, that brief point when London stops. Whilst his father offered to fly him home, Pleurat determined, “to not let London beat me.” Walking into the old Atlantic Bar in Glasshouse Street, he took a job washing glasses before working his way up to bartender in a matter of months.
From here, Pleurat’s luck began to change. Though initially still hating alcohol due to childhood medicinal memories, he had always been keen to understand how spirits are made and to learn about the soil that produces the grains needed to distil the spirit. He was helped by the discovery that he had a naturally precise palette; when he had the opportunity to go to a spirits show in Germany, many experts commented on this. He then worked for a number of Russian, Finnish, Polish and Estonian vodka producers for 12 years, flying between Eastern Europe, the US and UK as well as judging spirit competitions.
That desire to create his own vodka though remained. “Why do people get happy or sad with spirits – what’s the personality of individual spirits?” Pleurat pondered. He knew that Polish vodka had traditionally been seen as the best. He wanted to create a spirit that harked back to the origins of vodka – as he points out, all vodka in Russia is effectively the same due to the state monopoly on it. He moved to Poland and found an 85-year-old farmer willing to teach him, “I wanted to know everything – understand the soil, the grain, the climate.” As he points out, at base a spirit has only two ingredients, water and ethanol. As such, the water is hugely important in giving the final product its distinctiveness. Pleurat began to buy every bottled spring water he could find, and started to test them all.
For four years Pleurat shuttled backwards and forwards between the UK and Poland, camping beside the spelt, barley and wheat fields – he literally would dig through the snow in winter to sample the soil. He wanted to approach vodka like fine wine, “I knew I wanted a blend of the three grains to give it complexity, depth and an aroma.” He began to experiment in his kitchen with different blends. The dominant grain is 95 per cent spelt. The remaining blend of rye and wheat, “gently support the spelt” in Pleurat’s words. After 150 trips to Poland, and 350 blends, he found the perfect combination, “the same product can be affected by your mood but also kindle memories, when I tasted the final blend I had flash backs, all the memories of the journey to that point.”
During his time in the UK, with his samples, Pleurat had befriended many of London’s top bar tenders as well as their customers, having regaled them with his story. Their feedback was crucial in developing the blends. For the final shortlist, he asked the Polish farmers who had helped him so much to taste the spirit. “This was my biggest challenge!” Pleurat laughs, “getting Poles to drink a Croat’s vodka…”
In 2012, he began to take the final blend around London’s bars. He was given a two minute pitch at the Connaught, only to find he had left the bottle elsewhere. Told he then had one minute once he recovered the bottle, 60 seconds later he had 20 minutes and four hours later he was still chatting with the bar manager. The hotel became the first location to stock Konik’s Tail and it remains the house vodka to this day. It is now, amongst others, stocked at Dukes Hotel, Scotts, Annabel’s and Dandelyan, as well as a couple of Soho’s specialist spirit emporiums.
Throughout his journey, Pleurat attempted to gain funding from over 250 banks, private equity institutions and high-net worth individuals. All turned him down, citing no experience, no marketing and a saturated market. More than one person told him he would need at least five million pounds to launch the brand. Despite this negativity, his persistence paid off. Interestingly, at this point, a couple of Dragon’s Den investors who had initially cheerfully turned him down then approached him with an offer – effectively to buy him out on the cheap after the sweat and blood he’d put into the product. As he archly replied to them, “if you’re going to fuck me, at least kiss me first…” He walked out of the meeting and remains, as said, a proud one-man brand.
So what of the name? The konik are seen as slightly mythical creatures in modern Poland. Living deep within Europe’s last primeval woodland, the Białowieża Forest (now threatened with deforestation), these small ponies are reputed to bring you luck when you see them. Pleurat’s Polish farmers woke him at four in the morning on one of his visits and lead him to a tiny clearing where, after an hour’s wait, he finally caught sight of this “spirit like” animal.
Refusing to rest on his laurels, Pleurat met the Riddle team with two bottles in his bag as he continues to do the rounds of potential new bars. He frequently works 18 hour days even when in the UK, commuting from Hertford to London daily. He points to his shoes – he has to reseal them with glue on virtually a daily basis – but he refuses to part with them, “my shoes understand me – they have been on the journey with me” he remarks.
Over his time in the UK, Pleurat married an English women, “none of this would have happened without my wife” who, at the time Konik’s Tail was launched, was working as Hugh Laurie’s PA. The script on Pleurat’s bottles was polished by Bertie Wooster himself. Those seeking a delicious martini and a spirit which truly has a story, sweat and soul behind it should hunt down – or treat themselves to in one of Mayfair’s great hotels – a Konik’s Tail vodka.