TOP IMAGE: Svitlana Protsenko inspecting Zirkova bottles in Ontario, Canada May 2022 © Courtesy of Zirkova Vodka
This is a story of commitment, passion, courage, and facing impossible odds. It is a hero’s journey with obstacles, adversity, challenges, breakdowns, and breakthroughs, based on a mission and vision that is bigger than business.
This is the story of Zirkova Unity. When Zirkova co-founder and CEO Katherine Vellinga moved to Ukraine in 1997, little did she know that this journey would lead to discovering the origins of vodka itself—the “X” on the map where vodka first began.
She recalls feeling like an adventurer, searching for long-lost treasures, pulling up manuscripts, and speaking to industry experts, many of whom were women. “Our research showed that over 600 years ago, the first vodkas were made in a place called ‘Cherkaska,’ which was part of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth,” Vellinga shares. “Cherkaska is in the Cherkasy region of Ukraine. We pondered, ‘if this is what true vodka and vodka culture is, then how come it looks nothing like what we are being marketed to as consumers in Canada?’” This discovery set Vellinga on a path to bring authentic Ukrainian vodka to Canadians—and thus, Zirkova Vodka was born.
The Ukrainian-Canadian vodka company is led by women, with founder Vellinga at the helm. “Most of those in the vodka industry in Ukraine are women, highly educated Chemical Engineers, with double Masters and PHDs,” says Vellinga. “All people who work internally at Zirkova are women. This is a story about women supporting women, listening to their truth, and giving voice to those that have not been heard in the global spirits industry.” When Russia invaded Ukraine, Vellinga knew that she had to make a difference, both as a Ukrainian-Canadian and as a business owner. Within hours, the team at Zirkova Vodka vowed 100 percent of their profits to the Canada Ukraine Foundation in support of its Ukrainian Humanitarian Appeal.
“We at Zirkova are rooted in Ukraine,” Vellinga says. “We embody Ukrainian spirit and pride in our homeland. We are moved by the courage and bravery of all Ukrainians. We feel a great sense of responsibility to make a difference at this critical time and contribute fully in every way that we can—of our time, talents, and the treasure which is our company, our reputation, and our brand. We have donated all profits from every single bottle sold at LCBO from the first day of the invasion to the end of April. The response has been extraordinary. People want to help us to help Ukraine.”
With their instinctive desire to help, the focus was on Ukraine, not on how the invasion would impact their own business. However, they quickly saw the danger looming ahead and that their opportunity to help Ukraine would be affected by how much vodka they had to sell. Zirkova’s entire inventory will sell out completely by the end of June. But with the help of the women who make Zirkova possible, a plan emerged: a new vodka made in Canada with the spirit of Ukraine, Zirkova Unity.
The Making of Unity
Up until now, Zirkova has produced 100 percent of its vodka—Zirkova One and Zirkova Together—in the Cherkasy region of Ukraine, the birthplace of Vodka, and sells at the LCBO. The elegant “diamond-cut” glass bottle is Zirkova’s exclusive, patented design. Zirkova Vodka believes in freedom and the right to be who you are with dignity. It showcases Ukraine—uniting suppliers from every part of the country, including Zolotonosha, Rivne, Kyiv, Kherson, Sumy, Kharkiv, and Lviv regions. Each part of the vodka-making process is crafted in a way that embodies the spirit of Ukraine.
Zirkova Unity takes the expertise of years prior and brings the process to Canada, joining forces to help Ukraine and make a difference at a critical time. “Zirkova Unity is on a mission, a Canadian ‘supercharged’ with the bravery and courage of Ukrainians—with both Canadian and Ukrainian blood coursing through our veins,” Vellinga shares.
“We are grateful to the people of Canada, who have supported our brand and showed up for us during the most difficult time in our ancestral homeland and our companies’ history. From the consumers going to stores in support of Zirkova and Ukraine, to the wonderful people at the LCBO, to our business partners, to my team and all those that contribute so much to Zirkova each and every day. This is what UNITY is all about, and this is what we are seeing from our fellow Canadians. Their profound support is not lost on me and will forever be part of Zirkova’s story.”
Every company involved in the creation of Zirkova Unity has a connection to Ukraine; including the wheat itself, harvested from the heart of the Prairies and grown by generations of Canadian and Ukrainian farmers, to the non-GMO, kosher, gluten-free grain spirits, to the water from an artesian water source deep within the Canadian Shield, to a producer that provided a home for our Ukrainian Master Distiller. Vodka is an art and a science in Ukraine, so everything must be done to the highest of standards in a way that honours Ukrainian vodka-making traditions, bringing them to Zirkova’s second home in Canada.
“We have incredible partners—they care about helping a Ukrainian-Canadian business, producing to the highest quality standards and being part of a special project like this one, to find a Canadian home for Zirkova, while maintaining our Ukrainian heritage. This includes some well-known Canadian companies like the LCBO, North West Terminal, ASL Print FX, Cascades, and Caravan Logistics. This is not just a business move, we see a day where we will have two homes for Zirkova—with Unity being produced in Canada and Zirkova One and Together being produced in the birthplace of vodka, in Ukraine. As a proud Ukrainian-Canadian, this is important as both countries are near and dear to my heart”.
According to Vellinga, all that was missing were the beautiful Zirkova bottles trapped in Ukraine. “This is where committed and caring people introduced us to the people at Air Canada Cargo Operations, Air Canada Foundation and Inter-Transport Ltd. who helped air freight pallets of our glass bottles from Europe to Toronto. They contributed the missing piece that made all the difference to a Canadian company to be able to launch our Unity project and keep Zirkova on the shelves of the LCBO.”
The Unity Collection
Resilience, strength, unity, fighting spirit, and togetherness— each art piece represents these messages in a way that shares the story of Ukraine and its people. 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. Each work of art is displayed on its own Zirkova Unity bottle, with individual artists sharing the inspiration behind their creations.
“This ideology isn’t new for Zirkova; it’s at the core of our brand to take a stand for humanity and the freedom of all people. However, this is the first time Zirkova will be produced outside of Ukraine, so it’s important to us that we honour Ukraine in everything we do and remain in our commitment to celebrating the greatness in each of us. That’s why it’s so important that each artist’s story and artwork demonstrates a profound feeling of resilience, strength, unity, and they stand with the people of Ukraine,” says Zirkova’s Chief Marketing Officer Casey Wing (Kiekebelt).
“As a Ukrainian-Canadian, some of my fondest memories were celebrating Ukrainian Christmas at my grandparents’ home,” says Vellinga. “Over 30 of us gathered around one table, sharing special memories and laughter with every bite and every toast. It is my wish for the world that we can gather at one table and just be ourselves, that we celebrate and appreciate one another and unite through uplifting moments of optimism and possibility.”
Today, we raise a glass of Zirkova Unity and stand to support the birthplace of vodka. Zirkova Unity is coming soon to your local LCBO.
By Danielle Zafirovski
Danielle uses her talents to create unique pieces of art that are raffled off, and the earnings donated to charity. This piece is titled ‘For Ukraine.’ The artwork reflects the resilience of the Ukrainian people. The crane and pysanka symbolize strength, determination and enduring traditions.
By Julie Amlin
Julie Amlin is an artist who shakes off the dust of predictability to create an invitation for fun and reflection. ‘Kindred Hope’ is a celebration of the dance of human connection that we embrace when we choose to see each other as different instruments in the same orchestra.
‘THE STREETS OF KYIV SAY’
By Vika and Vita
Sisters Vika and Vita are artists, calligraphers, graphic designers, and teachers. Born in the Luhansk region of Ukraine, they studied and worked in Kyiv. Today though separated, they are mentally always together. Their artwork is titled ‘The streets of Kyiv say.’ We believe in Ukraine!
By Nick Sweetman
This artwork by Nick is titled ‘Big Tusks’. Boars are hardy, adaptable, and fearless. They thrive in a variety of habitats all over the world, and are one of the most widespread mammals on the planet. This furious blue boar with yellow tusks is a survivor—a symbol of Ukrainian resilience in the face of adversity.
By Daria Montague
Daria’s artwork is titled ‘Unity.’ Sunflowers follow the sun. But when it’s cloudy and gloomy, they face each other. Imagine if we did the same. This piece stands for Resilience, Unity, and Harmony.
By Dan Martelock
Dan’s artwork is titled ‘Resilience.’ It represents the strength and agility of birds and how they stick together as a group. Smaller birds form groups that work together to survive. Like a bird community, we are also here to help, stick together, and somehow unify and let people in the world know they are not alone.
Zirkova stands for the freedom to be who you are. We create and inspire uplifting moments that bring us together.