Zirkova Unity Collection © Szumski Media
What does it take to save a country—and a legacy? Since February of this year, we have witnessed the devastation caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the humanitarian and refugee crisis. The impact of the attack was felt across the globe. Citizens, organizations, businesses, and governments, inspired by the bravery and courage of Ukrainians in their fight for their freedom, responded with an outpouring of support for Ukraine. But for one Canadian brand with deep roots in Ukraine, who has been directly impacted by the invasion, it called for a shift in every way that it was doing business, so that it could continue to help Ukraine and its people. This is the story of Zirkova Vodka—a tale of survival, resilience, and unity.
Within hours of the invasion, Zirkova Vodka decided to donate the profits of their two vodkas, Zirkova One and Zirkova Together, sold at the LCBO, to the Canada Ukraine Foundation and its Ukrainian Humanitarian Appeal Fund. As a Ukrainian-Canadian company, this arose from a deep need to help the country they call home and the birthplace of vodka itself.
“Zirkova One and Together are produced in Ukraine; our mission has been to share the quality, authenticity, and classical methods that we discovered from the origins of vodka itself. It is important now more than ever to directly support the people of Ukraine who depend on our trade for their livelihood,” said Zirkova co-founder and CEO Katherine Vellinga.
Zirkova One and Zirkova Together honour both Ukrainian and Canadian roots. Zirkova One is masterfully crafted to be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, with soda, or in a classic martini. Zirkova One’s unique recipe and proprietary treatment impart delicate yet distinct and complex flavours with a shockingly smooth, velvety mouthfeel and an irresistible, long finish. At the same time, Zirkova Together has delightfully aromatic spirits and perfectly mineralized water that interact to make cocktail ingredients fuse and blossom.
The team behind Zirkova wanted to use their platform and products to help Ukraine and encourage other companies to do the same. Zirkova saw an outpouring of support for their authentic Ukrainian vodka, especially once word got out that profits from the sales would go towards helping Ukrainians. However, with the invasion, all vodka production in Ukraine was stopped and Zirkova needed to find a way to survive as a company and continue its mission to support the birthplace of vodka.
“We were looking at a situation where we would run out of stock in all warehouses at the LCBO, and we saw tremendous support for Ukraine,” recalled Vellinga. “We had worked so hard for many years to build sales in almost 400 stores, and we were looking at the prospect of Zirkova being completely sold out, of empty shelves, losing all our distribution, and disappearing entirely from the second-largest retailer of alcoholic beverages in the world. Since we were the only vodka from Ukraine, it would also mean that Ukrainian vodka would disappear from the shelves entirely.”
The Birth of Unity
Vodka is legendary in Ukraine. The craft of vodka-making is a serious endeavour involving highly trained Master Distillers with decades of experience and recipes passed down from generation to generation, infusing the practice with authenticity, heritage, and a passion for creation. With Zirkova One and Zirkova Together quickly disappearing off the shelves, the team knew that they had to bring authentic Ukrainian vodka to Canada in a whole new way.
Zirkova Unity was made in response to the invasion to honour Ukrainian vodka-making traditions and bring them here to Canada to give Ukrainian vodka a second home. Zirkova Unity has the distinction of being Zirkova’s first Canadian distilled vodka, and is an extension of their Ukrainian-made, Ukrainian-produced, Canada-owned product line of Zirkova One and Together.
At the same time, Unity was not a replacement for One or Together but rather a unique product that embodied the spirit of Ukraine while celebrating the best grains from the Canadian prairies and the water that Canada is famous around the world for. Unity is its own formulation and unique vodka experience with bold cereal notes and an effortless finish. Its purpose is to give back to Ukraine, and with each bottle sold, Zirkova vowed 100 per cent of profits to funds that support Ukraine and its people, like the Ukrainian Humanitarian Appeal Fund.
“Zirkova Vodka connects vodka lovers with the origins of vodka itself, and centuries of heritage and authenticity that go into every bottle,” Vellinga shared. “Every spirit began in a unique place, whether it is Scotch Whisky from Scotland, Tequila from Mexico, or Canadian Rye Whisky from Canada. Our research shows us that vodka began during the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in a place called Cherkaska, which is in modern-day Ukraine, and where we produce Zirkova One and Together. It has been our mission to educate people about the history of vodka, and to put this region on the map in a similar way. We never thought that we would be faced with the prospect of having to make vodka outside of Ukraine.
“The invasion meant we needed to find a second home in Canada to produce an entirely new vodka formulation, Zirkova Unity, worthy of the Zirkova brand and the quality that our customers expect. This would not have been possible without our Ukrainian Master Distiller. She brings world-class knowledge and methods that are virtually impossible to replicate and allowed us to preserve the heritage of Ukrainian Vodka making and bringing it to life here in Canada.”
Zirkova’s Master Distiller, Svitlana Protsenko, faced complex challenges while trying to get her family to safety amid the attacks. On the day of the invasion, she drove hours to Kyiv, picked up her documents and her daughter, and called her father, who was in northeastern Ukraine, which was occupied by Russian forces quickly in the early days of the invasion.
“She told me her harrowing journey to get her father, how she then drove them to a safe house in central Ukraine, and then to western Ukraine, and finally crossed the border on foot,” recalled Vellinga. “We asked her to join us, to come to Canada.”
Zirkova Unity is about creating a home for Zirkova in Canada, where people have united to support and stand with Ukraine. Having Svitlana, with her 30 years of experience join them in the process of making Unity was the final touch in honouring Ukrainian vodka-making traditions and bringing them to life in Canada.
Strengthening the connection between Canada and Ukraine, the Unity Collection features six limited-edition unique works of art on the bottles, crafted by artists from Ukraine and Canada who are contributing not only their unique gifts and talents but also their stories.
Taking the idea from concept to shelf in less than four months, Unity is a story of hope, resilience, and bravery, that provides a way for Canadians to give back to Ukraine.
The Spirit of Zirkova
Authenticity is of the utmost importance to Zirkova, whose motto centres around being true to yourself and giving others the grace to do the same.
“When you are free, when you are serene and at peace, you have the ability to grow as you want, to think and feel as you want, to experience life and its wonders as you want,” continued Vellinga. “We wish this way of life to continue. We are now finding out that these are no mere marketing words. We are learning just how sacred these words are. It really takes courage and bravery to make these words—these desires—meaningful. Our colleagues in Ukraine whose jobs and roles come together to form Zirkova are in the very fight for their lives. Every day brings possible harm to them and their families. We wish to support the people who grow, distill, and bottle Zirkova even while their country is being attacked. They are heroes, ordinary Ukrainians who are going about their jobs so they can continue to live every day, so they can provide for their families, so they can help their front-line defenders, so they can donate to humanitarian efforts. In helping them, we help Ukraine.”
“We managed to get vodka out that had been produced before the invasion and then eventually to restart production in Ukraine. It has not been easy, every part of our supply chain has been affected, from the distillery to our material suppliers who are continuing to produce under the most challenging circumstances, to the people who transport our product. It is not for the faint of heart. We hope that Canadians will recognize that behind Zirkova is a story of survival and determination to never give up. Our industry has always been about founders and the story behind products, we hope that people will be inspired by Zirkova and the lengths that we have gone through to bring them the best of Ukrainian vodka—the spirit of Ukraine.”
All three of Zirkova’s vodkas are together on LCBO shelves, championing authenticity, truth, and of course, unity. Zirkova Unity has launched in Manitoba and will be available soon in Saskatchewan, as the grains are grown in the heart of the Canadian prairies. Whether it is Zirkova One, Zirkova Together, or Zirkova Unity, each is a unique vodka experience and gives back to Ukraine in its own way, through donating profits or by being produced in Ukraine. Ever inspired by the courage, determination, and resilience of Ukrainians, Zirkova is committed to giving back whatever they can to support their fight and continue showing the world that Ukraine, the birthplace of vodka, is far too precious to lose.
Today, we raise a glass of Zirkova and support the birthplace of vodka.