Sarah Dworak never thought she would make her living from pierogies. But as the granddaughter of Ukrainian immigrants, she didn’t have a say in whether or not she inherited the gene for pierogi mastery.
Tucked away in the Carpathian Mountains near the Polish border, her paternal grandparents were from the rural village of Ploske, a place where Dworak’s great aunt lived in the same house without running water all her life. Her grandparents crossed the Atlantic in 1949 after World War II. Her father was born five years later, and once Dworak herself came along, her Baba made sure her granddaughter learned how to make the little half-moon shaped dumplings, stuffed with fillings like cabbage, potatoes and cheese and served with a generous dollop of sour cream.
In 2012, Dworak began selling pierogies to the public with a friend after they bonded over the savory snack at an Easter party. The side hustle took over two years later. Dworak quit her job in the real estate industry, set up shop in Findlay Market and dedicated herself to her Babushka Pierogies business full-time, pressing out the dumplings by the dozen to sell at the storefront as well as at grocery stores and restaurants throughout Cincinnati.
The business recently expanded further into Over-the-Rhine, opening a weekend walk-up window at 1200 Main St. for conquering late night-cravings with kielbasa bowls and pierogies filled with everything from pizza toppings to Cincinnati-style lentil chili.
The window has proved popular since opening in December, but its presence is only a sampling of what’s to come at the location.
This March will see the opening of Dworak’s Wodka Bar (the “w” is pronounced like an English “v”), which will be housed in the rest of the space attached to the pierogi window’s kitchen. For Dworak, it’s a passion project dedicated to the patron spirit of Eastern Europe.
“I always thought down the road I would do a vodka bar,” she says, citing the Slavic inclination toward the spirit. “It’s definitely on all of the dinner tables. It’s a part of life.”
Wodka Bar will carry an ambitious selection of vodkas, stocking upward of 60 types including many Russian, Polish and Ukrainian brands that are lesser known in the United States.
When you sit down at her bar, Dworak wants to introduce you to the nuances of vodka that you won’t taste in a Tito’s and Red Bull — she’ll still serve you one if that’s really want you want, but come on, read the room.
“In the United States it’s like this tasteless, odorless, colorless spirit,” she says. “And that’s what it’s distilled to be.”
But Dworak says that vodka’s best qualities are its versatility and simplicity, which allow for the creation of more unique flavor profiles than other spirits.
That’s why Wodka Bar will leave room on the liquor shelves for several dozen house-infused vodkas with flavors lent from ingredients like Russian Caravan black tea, caraway seeds, pine needles, rosemary, berries and citrus zest, among many others.
Vodka will dominate, but the bar will offer a rotating cocktail list as well as a small selection of other spirits, European wines and a single draft beer: O.K. Beer, a Premium Lager from Brzesko, Poland’s Okocim Brewery.
Bar snacks are mandatory of course, but forget about french fries and beer cheese. Instead, you can chase your shots with bites of caviar, pickled fish and vegetables, smoked meats, cheese and butter on dense, dark rye bread.
“Traditionally when you drink vodka you always want to eat something with it. We’re going to have some traditional foods on the menu that hopefully people won’t be too scared to try,” Dworak says.
She’s not pulling her recipes from any one country, instead focusing on common cuisines found across Slavic cultures.
Pierogies are one thing, but she says that the bar is the perfect complement to the food she’s been sharing with customers for years.
“It’s nice now to be able to pair the food and the drink of Eastern Europe together. It tells a more complete story,” she says.
The flavors of Wodka Bar won’t be its only transportive quality. Inside the intimate space, patrons will be enveloped by deep Prussian blues and rich golds, luxe velvet upholstery and distressed plaster walls, elegant wood paneling and all the intricacies of Eastern Orthodox architecture. Plans for the bar’s interior are intended to convey a sense of nostalgia for times and places past. Completing her maximalist vision for the space is a massive teal and orange stained glass ceiling light that was originally the rose window of a church.
Dworak attributes much of her inspiration to her family — most of all memories of her grandmother. “My Baba used to sing in the choir at her church,” she says. “I’m pulling a lot from the church aesthetic. There’s beautiful ornateness that brings me back to my childhood.”
It’s clear that Dworak’s efforts aren’t just about the pierogies or the vodka alone but rather the weight of culture and tradition they carry that she’s devoted herself to sharing.
Eastern European or not, it’s easy to see how something so simple can have such significance. “I had someone tell me once that I’m selling memories,” she says.
Wodka Bar won’t open until March, but until then you can still order from the takeaway window on Friday and Saturday nights and get a peek of the progress inside.
“It’s exciting. I’m bringing this experience of Eastern Europe and I feel a sense of responsibility to do right by it,” Dworak says. “To be able to work in this environment of sharing authentic-ness of myself and my family, you know, it feels so good to do that. It’s a very rewarding life.”
Wodka Bar is located at 1200 Main St., Over-the-Rhine. Find more info at babushkapierogies.com or search Wodka Bar on Facebook.