We are continuing our series of articles about Ukrainian businesses in Canada. Today, we present a company whose products many people in the community enjoy and support, Multiculture Bevco Inc. This article is not so much about Slava or Zirkova vodkas, or, even, Lvivske pyvo. It’s about Katherine Koszarny-Vellinga and John Vellinga and their efforts in the Ukrainian-Canadian community to make a difference in Ukraine and create a legacy.
The following is what Katherine had to say to the New Pathway.
My husband and I are System Design engineers educated at the University of Waterloo. We met there, I am Ukrainian Canadian, my family is from Kharkivschyna (father’s family) and Kirovohradshchyna (mother’s family). All four of my grandparents survived the horrors of the Holodomor. When I was seven-years old, my grandfather gave me a book entitled “Black Deeds of the White Kremlin” with accounts from Holodomor survivors and we protested for Ukraine’s independence. We were instilled with love for Ukraine from childhood.
My identical twin sister, Olena, visited Ukraine with our Babysia after it had gained independence and she fell in love with Ukraina. Within three months she had moved to Kyiv. It is hard to believe that was 23 years ago. In 1997, my husband and I also moved to Kyiv. It was a bold move, as we left our jobs at Procter & Gamble and Canadian Tire to start our own consulting firm in Ukraine, EBS, partnering with Olena and Lena Volska, who is still the Managing Partner to this day.
Many people in our community know John as a patriot and someone who loves our culture and traditions, and publicly stands up for Ukraine. Yet his background is Dutch and Scottish. He was the one who said “If I move, I want to create a legacy”. Those were the early days of independence and we had the opportunity to work with the most progressive Ukrainian, multinational and investment companies.
EBS led to our import business because of our work with Lvivska Pyvovarnia, and Slavutich Brewery in Kyiv. Initially our clients asked us to help them bring their wonderful beers to Canada. If you recall, at that time, there was no category of Ukrainian products at the LCBO. With the successful launch of the beers, the LCBO asked us to “Find them a vodka from Ukraine”. It was then that we decided to create our own vodka brand, Slava Ultra Premium Vodka, which was launched in 2005. It was a true labour of love, and took two years to develop with one of the oldest Ukrainian distilleries located in Zolotonosha, Cherkasy region. They pride themselves on staying true to classical methods, integrated with modern technology.
Many Ukrainians don’t know about the “Vodka War” between Poland and Russia in the 1970s. The Polish asserted that only they could use the label “vodka” and that it was invented during the Polish-Lithuanian Empire almost 600 years ago in a place called Cherkaska. The Russians claimed that this area was in the Russian Empire. Very few Ukrainians would say that Ukraine is the birthplace of vodka, yet Cherkaska is Cherkasy, and so the birthplace of vodka is in Ukraine! We named the vodka Slava, because we wanted to bring glory to Ukraine, and did not stop until we could surpass every top-shelf vodka in terms of quality, taste and smoothness. Many people don’t know that the reason Slava is $20 less is because we used a triangular bottle that does not roll in the freezer, instead of a fancy, expensive bottle. Zirkova vodka was launched in 2006 and was designed to make mixed drinks better, yet deliver a premium, authentic vodka experience when sipped straight. Both vodkas are produced at the same distillery.
In Ukraine, the distillation of spirits happens where the grain is. We use centre-cut, grain spirits from Lvivshchyna. That is important as many vodkas in Canada are produced from corn. Spirits are blended with water to make vodkas and water to vodka is like soil or “terroir” to wine. Since you can’t move the water source, you must go to where it is. This live, artesian water source, which we use, is famous for its purity and perfect minerality for vodkas. Slava and Zirkova are Canadian brands distilled in Ukraine; they have been uniquely designed to create a better vodka experience combining the best of both worlds.
As Canadians who have lived in Ukraine, our desire was to return and build a bridge between Ukraine to Canada. To date, we have shipped over 200 sea containers of product. We are patriots and have chosen this path, and our products to make a difference. We truly believe that we are in the business of celebrating our culture and our traditions, and we take every opportunity to showcase that to Canadians. For example, John appeared on CBC Dragon’s Den where he won the Grand Prize Viewer’s Choice Award. He insisted that we include Ukrainian dancers in our pitch. Millions of Canadians saw the beauty of Ukrainian dance as a result. For another event at the Toronto Design Exchange, where they honoured RIM’s Blackberry design team, we introduced all the VIPS to Ukrainian toasting traditions.
We have also raised over $200,000 for local charities across Canada by donating the Vodka Experience as a live auction prize. It is a tutored vodka tasting that sells for $,3000-$5,000 with all proceeds going to worthwhile causes. What inspires me about the current situation is that Ukrainians from all over the world have contributed their gifts and talents to benefit Ukraine. In big ways, in small ways, but it all adds up. I will give you one example. We have donated countless gift baskets to raise money for Ukraine at various events. For example, at the last year’s Canada Ukraine Chamber of Commerce Christmas Party, we raised $1,350 this way. All funds were donated for sleeping bags for the Ukrainian army.
There are no brands on the shelf that are more patriotic, that have done more for Ukraine and our community here in Canada, than Lvivske, Slava and Zirkova. Often people will reach for other brands, but I want people to understand that these brands are not doing anything for Ukraine or for the community here. For example, you can be proud drinking Lvivske 1715 because it is a beautiful brewery that combines business, faith, Ukrainian traditions and pride. When you buy a pliashka of Lvivske, you connect with the people that made it, and when they produce Lvivske 1715, they know it’s for Canada and they connect with us. I ask people to be proud of these brands and to share them with their family and friends. They are a part of our community because they came from the community. And there is strength in numbers. As we grow stronger, we can do more as a community and everyone wins. Slava Ukraini!
Multiculture Bevco is a developer and marketer of high-quality, niche alcoholic beverage products. The Oakville, Ontario-based company owns two vodka trademarks – Slava Ultra Premium vodka and Zirkova Premium vodka. The company also represents such leading brands from Ukraine as Slavutich Beer, Lvivske Beer and Krimsekt Sparkling Wines.