I came along to Woda Ognista as it was part of a press tour on vodka organised by Eat Polska (excellent tours incidentally, highly recommended).
Before I even came to try the cocktails I noticed an impressive collection of antique cocktail shakers and decanters, and then on closer inspection I realised that the entire bar had a sort of pre-war feel to it. Beata, our Eat Polska guide, explained that this tour used to end in the old town, but that most people wanted to continue drinking after the tour had ended (I was impressed), and that a very cool place to do just that was exactly where we were. It’s stylish and elegant, a little unusual, a very cool place in fact; vintage, yes, but at the same time on trend.
Then we tried the cocktails – two made with Zubrówka (bison grass vodka) – which tasted wonderful and were very whimsically presented.
Woda Ognista is one of my favourite bars, I decided, and I asked Emil Oponowicz, one of the barmen-patrons if he would give a bit more background about it for Saucy Dressings, and with a big smile he replied, “with huge pleasure I will answer your questions”.
EO: Woda Ognista was opened over a year ago by four friends: we’re three bartenders and one guy from a completely different industry. Nowadays it’s just the three of us, Patryk Kowalski, Dawid Borowiak and myself, Emil Oponowicz, behind this project.
The idea of having our own cocktail bar came to us about ten years ago, so literally at the beginning of our bartending careers. It was always like a dream to make something that has been never been seen before in the Warsaw bar industry. We have plenty of restaurants in this city, serving traditional Polish food to a really nice level, but no one has ever tried to put that soul into the cocktails. We decided to be first.
SD: How did you find this very special property?
EO: It wasn’t easy to find the exactly right property to make our dream come true. We believed that if it was going to be a real “Warsaw place” it had to be something special, something more than just another venue to rent. Finally, after a year and a half we found the perfect match – an over a hundred-year-old building in the heart of the city centre, on Wilcza 8 street.
SD: How did the cocktail shaker collection get built up, and why did you decide to give the bar this particular vintage feel?
EO: As I mentioned earlier, Woda Ognista is all about Polish taste. The whole concept is inspired by interwar Warsaw and the golden era of cocktails but, obviously, also with the spirit of a modern city.
We are trying to create a place that represents some of the finest bars that existed in the capital before WWll. We want to go back to the times were cafes and restaurants were special places where people met and socialised, had a drink.
The interior has been well thought out combining lots of wooden panels with exposed brick walls. In one of the rooms you can find a lot of photos representing 1920s and 30s Warsaw.
One of the things which makes this bar stand out from our many competitors is our incredible collection of vintage bar ware and shakers collected for a years by us owners from antique markets and shops, and internet auctions. We think it may be the largest collection in Europe.
The focus point however is the bar, which is over seven meters long, with over 300 bottles It features a special shelf for just Polish alcohol, which, of course, includes many varieties of Polish vodka (for example the Zubrówka you’ve just tried). as well as many liqueurs.
And obviously, the best spirits and cocktails need some nourishing accompaniment, so we have also installed a kitchen, which serves a selection of rediscovered, traditional Warsaw recipes.
SD: I noticed the menu was a themed menu – how do you hit on a theme? I know many of your cocktails are seasonal, can you give some examples?
EO: Our cocktail menus are always seasonal (we change them four times a year), full of everything that’s the best in our country. And behind all of them you will find the same theme, which looks back to interwar Warsaw. Initially we spent over a year going through menus written in the old Warsaw way of talking, or found in some of the old Warsaw districts, or used by an experimental group of poets called “Skamander”. Because it’s the year of the Vistula river in Poland, our summer menu was inspired by some Warsaw river docks, old city beaches, or steamboats such as ‘Książe Xawery’ which was the very first steamboat to work on the Vistula. Our autumn menu is inspired by old Polish restaurants and bars. It’s a little different. We always split our cocktail lists between our own, new, creations and some forgotten world classics. This time, after a long research, in addition to our own inventions, you will find also old Polish cocktail recipes, to get our guests even more into the golden age of Polish gastronomy.
All of the menus are prepared by us, after long research. We are never looking for help from the outside because we believe that it will be unfair.
SD: Who draws the lovely illustrations on your menus?
EO: Yes, as I was saying, we do everything in-house. Even the graphic projects, the illustrations on our menus, are prepared by our waitress, who is a tattoo artist.
SD: Can you give an example of one of your favourite cocktails?
EO: A perfect example of that what we are serving is the Adria. This cocktail is dedicated to one of the most “posh” bars of 1920s and 30s Warsaw. It’s based on caraway seed infused Polish Ostoya vodka, with sea buckthorn and orange juice, and chamomile syrup (from flowers picked and dried by ourselves) and topped with champagne. That’s a drink that is refreshing our guests during this autumn.