Pernod's sortie into the world of Polish vodka proved a far bumpier ride than the French group would have liked. Politics, Polish law and furious deal making all played their part. But as Andrew Jefford reports both parties look set to prosper in the new multinational relationship.

It was a journey I will never forget. Despite there being an excellent express-train link between Warsaw and Poznan, my Polish hosts decided that it would be more appropriate for a visiting foreign journalist to travel by car from the Agros headquarters in the capital to the country's prize distillery in the far west.

Most of the `motorway' was composed of just one traffic lane in each direction, and to maintain any sort of pace amongst the slack-axled lorries and horse-drawn carts required fighter-pilot bravado from the driver and limitless fortitude from the passengers. Our tungsten-nerved, chain-smoking chauffeur would dart out to overtake an assortment of vehicles and swerve back in at the final, headlight-glaring moment, exactly the same strategy being adopted by all of those trying to travel briskly in the opposite direction. When we got to Poznan, I needed a stiff drink. And then another one.

Pernod Ricard's negotiators must have had to adopt the same kind of fortitude as they sought to woo and win Wyborowa for their own family of brands. To start with, it was produced all over Poland by dozens of distilleries, each of who wanted a slice of the action. Pernod Ricard's first move was to acquire Agros, the Warsaw-based foreign trade outfit which held the export rights to Poland's vodkas.


The first move was to acquire Agros, the foreign trade outfit which held the export rights to Poland's vodkas

Good move - except that the distilleries felt cheated. Agros was a communist-era fossil; now the world had changed, why shouldn't the distilleries themselves have the right to export? The Polish parliament sided with the distilleries, at which point things looked black for P-R, and a rapid swerve was in order to avoid a head-on collision. The swerve was an offer to give up those export rights in return for a chance to buy Polmos Poznan, the distillery which won the Wyborowa brand when these were privatised.

It worked, and the purchase is under way. Wyborowa has been repackaged (which it desperately needed), and the marketing machinery is beginning to whirr.

There was, of course, also the little matter of Zubrówka, the celebrated whisper-green vodka, each bottle of which contains a spear of the vanilla-scented "bison grass" from Poland's primeval Bialowieza forests. That was on the P-R shopping list, too - but distilling rights had been won by Polmos Bialystok.

Wodka Wyborowa & Bison Brand Zubrówka

Pernod Ricard, I was told by spokesman Alain-Serge Delaitte, didn't really need another large-capacity distillery and the suitcase full of minor brands which go with it, so it is negotiating for European distribution rights for Zubrówka alone.

It's hard to reach any other conclusion than that the French expedition into Poland has been a triumphant success. Pernod Ricard didn't have a big vodka brand and, having lost out in Absolut terms, the hole in its portfolio was gaping. Wyborowa looks to me like a much better fit for P-R than Absolut would ever have been. The quality of the spirit is second to none among the big brands: Wyborowa is a great vodka, the authentic heir to a long-established rye-distilling tradition, and as such has more than a whiff of terroir about it.

The Absolut appeal, by contrast, is marketing-led. The French know how to market - but they're much happier doing it when there's something solidly agricultural, something a little terroiriste, behind the guff and the glitz.

What, though, about the world viewed from the other direction on the motorway? Just how welcome is that fast car from Paris?

Królewska from Zielona

Let's take the cheery news first. The idea that Pernod Ricard, as owners of Agros, should in effect be the monopoly exporter of all vodka from Poland was glaringly anachronistic. After 1989, the distilleries themselves showed considerable initiative, coming up with some superb, cleverly packaged vodkas, such as Królewska from Zielona Góra (top scorer in a blind tasting I organised for The Evening Standard) and Chopin from Siedlce. Vodka is as important to Poland's image in the world as wine is to the French and a thriving international Polish vodka presence requires a range of strong and independent brands.

Pernod Ricard's Delaitte confirmed that the company recognised this, which was why in the end they were happy to trade away the historic Agros export rights. "The more players you have, the better," as Delaitte put it. Other international partners for Polish distilleries are welcome, though some Polmoses, claims Delaitte, have expressed an interest in continuing to work with the Pernod-owned Agros.

Chopin from Siedlce

The fact is, though, that Wyborowa was the crown jewel - and it will soon be French-owned. On the face of it, this is a blow for Polish pride. Imagine Château Latour being owned by the British, Champagne Mumm by the Americans, or a great English brewer like Bass or Whitbread being owned by the Belgians.

You take my point. Latour was indeed owned by Pearson for many years; US investors Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst recently concluded a short tenancy on Mumm; and Interbrew's UK adventures are too familiar to need retelling here.

For better or worse, nationality doesn't matter much any more; what matters is that those owning great products understand them, care for them, invest in them, and act as worthy stewards of them for future generations. There's no doubt in my mind that Wyborowa will, in the present climate, flourish better (and be safer from potential predation) in Pernod Ricard's hands than it would have done by remaining a purely Polish venture. And, who knows, maybe in 2101 Pernod Ricard itself will be acquired by a powerful, Warsaw-based, Polish-run multinational, and Wyborowa will go home. Stranger things have happened.


For more information on Pernod, visit: Strategic Review 2000 Pernod Ricard
http://just-drinks.com/store/products_detail.asp?art=10431