Spirytus Rektyfikowany

Hunting for Spirytus Rektyfikowany in New York’s Greenpoint neighborhood.

If you’ve ever read a paper copy of The Wall Street Journal, you’ve probably seen the rectangular A-shaped box with diamonds on the edges. It’s called the A-Hed – a colorful page-one feature that explores the quirky side of life.

By the start of the pandemic, I’d been at the Journal nearly three years and always wondered where the inspiration for these stories comes from. Anyone at the Journal is free to pitch and write an A-Hed, whether you cover real estate, finance, fashion or traipse various beats as an investigative reporter like me.

It turns out the inspiration can come from just a regular old catch-up chat with your mom. Last month, while my mom and I were discussing the various disruptions the coronavirus pandemic had created on normal life, she mentioned offhand that Spirytus Rektyfikowany had become much harder to find in liquor stores near my family’s suburban Chicago home.

What’s Spirytus Rektyfikowany? For Poles like us, it needs no explanation: it’s Poland’s famously strong 96% ABV liquor that is thought to be a cure-all for everything. It’s also good for making homemade vodka and “nalewka” (a fruity liqueur my grandma used to make in droves). It’s not recommended for drinking – the spirit is so strong you can set it on fire, and even if you don’t, it will burn all the way down if you drink it straight.

I’d never thought of spirytus as a best-selling item. So I stopped by a few liquor stores in New York and noticed exactly the same thing. It was selling out all over as customers bought extra supplies to make home-made hand sanitizer, which has also been hard to find amid the pandemic.

That led to this April 17 A-Hed – a look behind the surge in demand for Spirytus Rektyfikowany and the Polish lore that underpins its enduring appeal. It was my first A-Hed for the Journal.

My first A-Hed for The Wall Street Journal on the paper’s April 18-19, 2020 edition.

Special thanks to Barry Newman, the king of A-Heds, whose book on colorful feature writing is one of the best reporting guides I’ve read. It’s called “News to Me” and I highly recommend it. I’ll end on this piece of wisdom from Barry’s book: “Good stories aren’t ‘about’ things, but about things happening to things.”

The quote comes from a chapter in which Barry talks about the importance of finding the right vehicle to tell your story. It could be a person, an event, a place, but whatever it is, the key is to find the action and the scenes that tell the story. And that often means getting out of the office.

I was amazed at how much action I was able to find just by walking around liquor stores in Manhattan and Greenpoint, the Polish enclave in Brooklyn. In one store, a couple bought five bottles of Spirytus Rektyfikowany right in front of me; in another I happened upon Leszek, a Polish émigré who sang spirytus’s praises to anyone who would listen.

Thanks for the great advice, Barry.