© Courtesy of Zirkova Vodka
“Vodka, for Ukrainians, is a connector,” says Zirkova co-founder and CEO Katherine Vellinga. “We treat it with reverence and respect.”
In 1997, Vellinga and her husband John moved to Ukraine and came across the origins of vodka. 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. It made sense to us that the origin story about vodka involved both Poland and Ukraine and that their stories were intertwined together. We pondered, ‘if this is what true vodka is and vodka culture, then how come it looks nothing like what we are being marketed to as consumers in Canada?’”
This discovery set the Vellingas on a path to bring authentic Ukrainian vodka to Canadians—and thus, Zirkova Vodka was born.
“We never set out to create a vodka brand, we made a discovery and wanted to share it with the world,” says Vellinga. “As a Ukrainian Canadian, the Ukrainian in me drinks vodka the way we do in Ukraine—straight, savouring its complexity. The Canadian side of me loves Caesars and cocktails. Working with Master Distillers in the birthplace of vodka, we had two goals: To create the best vodka in the world, based on spirits that were reserved for royalty and preserving classical methods, and to develop an innovative vodka that takes any mix that you love and makes it taste better, not boozier, which has never been done before. It took years to formulate our vodkas, and we are proud that Zirkova is the first vodka brand in the world that created these two unique formulations to honour how people drink vodka. Many people ask me what the difference is. It is like my twin sister and me; we have the same DNA, but we are completely different people.”
Zirkova One is for vodka drinkers who prefer to sip, as one would a fine scotch or whisky. Zirkova Together invites vodka drinkers to amplify the flavours of their favourite cocktails, mixed drinks, and of course, Caesars—Canada’s national drink.
“This is also important to our women customers who represent the majority of cocktail drinkers. They love to create beautiful drinks, and want to know they are using a vodka created by women Master Distillers, that honours them.”
The work of creating a vodka that honours its home is a driving force behind the Zirkova brand and is what led them to become a platform for giving.
“We had the purest of intentions. Zirkova came from love and a desire to share our culture and create uplifting moments that bring us together. As entrepreneurs, you cannot write big cheques, but you can donate your time and your talents. So that’s what we did. We have raised over $400,000 by donating Zirkova Vodka Experiences, tutored tasting events as live auction prizes for all kinds of charities all over Canada and always participated in fundraisers, and ways to give back to Ukraine, especially opportunities to show the world Ukraine’s transformation. We have never forgotten our roots.”
Now, as Ukrainians fight the invasion of their home, Zirkova is donating 100 percent of their profits, putting everything they can into supporting—and saving—the birthplace of vodka.
“Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. At times like these, I believe that each of us has a choice. To act and be powerful or to be helpless and give up our power. If you look at CEOs and companies in Ukraine, they have pivoted entirely. Nobody is prioritizing their business; they are focused on Ukraine and what they can do right now to make a difference. Because entrepreneurs typically create companies that are an extension of their passions, interests, their unique gifts and talents, then it is natural to contribute these same things at this time to help Ukraine. When we decided to donate 100 percent of our profits it felt so right, we knew we had to do that. The decision was made instantly, and within an hour the post was up.”
Using her passions and gifts, Vellinga has pivoted the Zirkova brand to actively supporting Ukraine in every way possible, from helping families connected to the distillery get to safety
to raising awareness for Ukrainian aid organizations like Help Ukraine.
“Our mission has always been to share vodka’s birthplace, bring the origin story to life, and create a global brand rooted in passion, purpose, and culture. When I think about what we are doing, it is about contributing to Ukraine, but fundamentally, it is about saving the birthplace of vodka.
“I am particularly inspired by Ukrainian women who form the backbone of the nation. Ukraine sits on the lands of the most powerful matriarchal societies dating back thousands of years. Ukrainian women make an enormous contribution—they serve in and make up 15 percent of the Ukrainian Army, they patrol their communities in Territorial Defense Units, assist internally displaced people who are arriving in Western Ukraine by the hundreds of thousands per day, they are helping refugees cross the border and settle in communities across the world, they are helping mitigate the risks of human and child trafficking, they are raising money, they are taking care of their children and taking care of their parents. They are extraordinary leaders and civil society activists.
“When people speak about the bravery and spirit of the Ukrainian people, I want you to know that this is the Ukraine I have known and loved for most of my life. Our hearts are breaking, and many of us feel helpless. We are not weak. We are free to choose. Let’s follow the example of Ukrainians. Let’s do what they would do and find our courage and strength in standing together. Ukrainians need us to unite, act, and help them now.”
“Vodka is used for toasting, acknowledgement, and special occasions. As a Ukrainian-Canadian, some of my fondest memories were celebrating Ukrainian Christmas at my grandparents’ home. Over 30 of us gathered around one table, sharing special memories and laughter with every bite and every toast. I recall my grandparents always inviting people that would have otherwise been alone for the holidays; everyone was always welcome and included at their table. Imagine what this meant to my grandparents, two orphans who had survived unimaginable horrors of Stalin’s genocide against the Ukrainian people or Holodomor—death by famine—in 1932-33, the Nazi Germany occupation of Ukraine, and the uncertainty of displaced labour camps. Imagine what it meant to them to have their children and grandchildren together and gathered around one table.
“When my husband and I moved to Ukraine in 1997, we saw this amplified and understood that it was a “superpower” of Ukrainians. That toasting was part of every gathering, every birthday, every occasion. There was a ritual to it, a beauty, and a way of focusing the energy of family, friends, and community gathered around the table towards blessing the celebrated person. At Zirkova, we love the toast ‘BUDMO’ which means ‘Just Be’—just be you. Especially in times of crisis, the easiest thing to be is who you already are.
“We cannot imagine a world without Ukraine. Ukraine is capturing the hearts and minds of people everywhere. The way they stand united, resilient, and strong shows the powerful choices made by individual citizens of Ukraine. Together they are a force. Margaret Mead famously said, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’ Ukrainians are inspiring global citizens to unite and work together in ways that are unprecedented. I hope that together, we can stop this home and land invasion of Ukraine, this war that they do not want to be in, and in this way, we can change the world. Once people understand how powerful they are as citizens, we will unite again and again to tackle the greatest challenges of our time.”
Zirkova is the first brand to create two unique ultra premium vodkas specifically crafted for every palate, preference and occasion.