Zirkova: The Making of Unity

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005GHN Zirkova Vodka

Svitlana and Katherine © 2022 szumski media / Zirkova Vodka Ukrainian Vodka

When Zirkova co-founder and CEO Katherine Vellinga moved to Ukraine in 1997, she came across the origins of vodka—the “X” on the map where vodka first began. Feeling like an adventurer, Vellinga started to search 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 shared. “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 see in Canada?’”

Vellinga’s discovery put her in touch with Ukrainian Master Distillers, true masters of their craft, who had decades of experience in chemical engineering and vodka making. Their classical methods, paired with Vellinga’s vision to merge authenticity and creativity, brought Zirkova to life. Every part of Zirkova is infused with heritage and the air of perfectionism.

“I started working at Zirkova in 2018,” said Chief Marketing Officer Casey Wing. “Even though it was the product that first wowed me, it was what the company was doing for humanitarian efforts that really brought me into the fold. When I look at Zirkova, I see far beyond the vodka itself; I see an entire brand, an entire community of people, an entire way of seeing the world, that manifests itself into a vodka brand.”

ukrainian vodka
Photo © Courtesy of Zirkova Vodka

The Spirit of Zirkova

Zirkova places a focus on creating opportunities for giving back to the communities they are part of, both in Canada and Ukraine. Committed to freedom and human rights for all, Zirkova as a brand has worked to give back in unique and creative ways, from charity auctions to fundraising. Following the tragic attacks in Ukraine, Zirkova pivoted its business entirely. They needed to find a way to survive, and to give back to Ukraine, and in that way do what they were uniquely positioned to do—to preserve the traditions and honour the birthplace of vodka.

“Immediately when Ukraine was invaded, within hours, we had decided to donate 100 per cent of our profits to Ukraine from the sale of our Ukrainian made Vodkas—Zirkova One and Zirkova Together,” Wing continued. “This, to us, was our responsibility. We should not profit from the outpouring of support for Ukraine, but Ukrainians should.”

With their instinctive desire to help, Zirkova’s focus was on Ukraine, not on how the invasion would impact their own business.

“As a team we came together,” echoed Vellinga. “What could we do? Ukraine could not produce because at that time, vodka production was not allowed. We had to find a way. We had always been about sharing the birthplace of vodka, the origins, but it wasn’t only about the land—it was also about the people. In the same way that people around the world were opening up their homes and their hearts to Ukrainians, we thought we could open up our home and create a home in Canada for Zirkova Vodka.”

With the help of the women who made Zirkova possible, both in Ukraine and Canada, a plan emerged: a new vodka, made in Canada with the spirit of Ukraine, Zirkova Unity. While the war in Ukraine has forced many to leave their home, Unity ensures that the people’s voices are heard and the nation’s cry is not forgotten.

“Unity’s big mission is to support Ukraine and to attract attention to our tough situation, to tell the world about Ukrainians, their hopes, and aspirations.” —Polina, Zirkova Head of Production.

Polina continued, “Many Ukrainians had to leave their homes because of war, including my family. When the war started, my daughter and then my parents, like many others, were forced to leave their homes. My daughter was at the Boryspil airport on February 24, 2022, when the war began. She managed to leave Ukraine by train a week later. Now, my family is safe with me in France. Like many people who did not want to leave their country, for whom it was not their choice, my family wants to return when it is possible. We all hope that the war will end soon, that Ukraine will recover and emerge from the war as a strong, modern, prosperous country.”

Zirkova’s Master Distiller, Svitlana, faced similarly 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 the Chernihiv region, in north-central Ukraine, which was occupied by Russian forces quickly in the early days of the invasion and then liberated.

“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 into Slovakia with her daughter and father,” recalled Vellinga. “We were able to locate her and asked her to join us, to come to Canada for this project and unique experience.”

Into the Bottle

“For me,” the Master Distiller said, “the production of vodka is my whole life. This is my professional path in life.”

Zirkova Unity is about creating a home for Zirkova in Canada, where people have come together and united to support and stand with Ukraine. Having Svitlana, with her thirty 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.

“It starts with the best spirits from the heart of the Prairies,” Vellinga explained. “Grain is really important to us, as the best vodkas in Ukraine are made from grain spirits. For Zirkova Unity, we selected grain spirits that had a connection to Ukraine, that were extraordinary quality, non-GMO, grown by generations of Ukrainian and Canadian farmers, gluten-free, kosher, and grown within 100km of the spirits distillery.”

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.

Today, we raise a glass of Zirkova Unity and stand to support the birthplace of vodka. Zirkova Unity can be found at your local LCBO.

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