KOVICH 1917 vodka looks very cool with its retro Soviet-meets-pop-art label. And let me tell you, this £30-per-bottle spirit also slides down rather well, a fact on which Selfridges, Skylon, Jerry’s in Soho and China Tang at the Dorchester – stockists of Zorokovich 1917 – agree.
But what is unique about Zorokovich is its history, stumbled upon by Dan Edelstyn, a film-maker in search of his family roots. As well as the re-establishment of a vodka business, this quest turned into a social enterprise and a documentary, How To Re-Establish a Vodka Empire, released in London this week. “I’m a film maker,” says Edelstyn, “that’s wound up in the middle of the premium spirits industry.”
The story originates in Edelstyn’s great grandparents’ distillery in the nroth-eastern Sumy region of the Ukraine, just below Russia. “When I was researching my granny, I stumbled across the distillery and the idea came from there. Here was this impoverished village and the distillery was so under capacity. In looking for my roots, I felt I could connect with my lost ancestral past and help the village to connect with the future – the Ukraine is really cut off from Europe and creating a brand in demand by the West could be a way to help.”
Edelstyn’s great-grandfather opened the distillery in 1904, along with a sugar factory at the other end of the village. The two worked in cahoots as the sugar byproduct went to the booze-making factory. Both were lost the year of the Russian Revolution, in1917, and were owned by the state thereafter at which point “my granny escaped to the West, and my grandpa came through Europe, ending up in Belfast where he became a radical republican.”
It all sounds romantic, going back to your roots, re-opening and re-invigorating a family business. But doing so in conjunction with an ex-Soviet state is less romantic, and the project has been riddled with obstacles – from obstructive Ukranian officials to tax conundrums and an erratic supply chain. “It’s a bit of a nightmare dealing with a state-run business,” says Edelstyn. “Ukraine is a volatile country; things change from one year to the next. If I’d gone into this as a businessman, I’d never have done it.”
He may not be a businessman, but Edelstyn knew how to make his product appeal to a UK market, bringing cocktail industry supreme Alex Kammerling along to create the premium recipe. “The first recipe was something we tried to do ourselves, but it ended up quite bad.”
Ultimately, Edelstyn feels a responsibility to the people he’s trying to help. If the vodka fails, he’s failed them: “Obviously, I want to make it a success. Unless I get a toe-hold, it will slip away – then I’ll feel like I’ve let down the villagers, who were saying how bad things were.” But in getting their story – as well as his family’s – on public record, he’s already done a lot. How To Establish a Vodka Empire will be at the ICA 16-22 March and Hackney Picture House on 19 March. For more screenings in London and at regional Cinworlds, and to order Zorokovich, go to www.zorokovich.com.