Rudolf Jelínek: Moravian slivovitz maker with a fascinating history
The makers of Rudolf Jelínek slivovitz say the company carries on a tradition of alcohol production in the Wallachia region that dates back more than 400 years.
The first written record of a distillery in the Vizovice region, where Rudolf Jelínek is based, dates from 1585.
The climate in this part of the Zlín region in the far east of Czechia is particularly suited to growing plums, which has triggered a boom in the construction of distilleries.
Zlín historian Marcel Sladkowski told Czech radio that plums have been a major local crop for some time.
“Wallachia is an ideal region for growing plums. For example, around the year 1900, there were about 77,000 fruit trees in the Vizovice region alone and of these, 68,000 were plum trees.
The Rudolf Jelínek brand did not start with Rudolf himself, although he helped make it one of Czechia’s most recognizable alcoholic beverages.
The story really begins with his father, Zikmund Jelínek.
Marcel Sladkowski explains a bit about the family history.
“The Jelínek family is not from Vizovice – they come from the Uherský brod region. One branch was from Luhačovice. It was the family of Jakub Jelínek, who ran a brewery there. He had 11 children. His eldest son Zikmund moved from Luhačovice to Vizovice, where from 1882 he rented a distillery.
About a decade later, Zikmund Jelínek – having by then acquired a great deal of experience in the field – set up his own distillery.
“It was established in 1891. But before that there was already a distillery in Vizovice, which Zikmund Jelínek rented. It was later operated by the Singer family, after Jelínek went it alone and started his own distillery. And after that, even more distilleries were created in Vizovice.
In 1919, the brothers Rudolf and Vladimír Jelínek took over the company in Vizovice from their father, giving it the name Son of Zikmund Jelínek.
Interestingly, there are labels from this era with English text, including “Plum brandy, old straight”. Slivovice is written in Czech.
Two years later they bought a large distillery in a peripheral part of Vizovice and started production there.
The new factory had been established under the name of Rolnický akciový závod ovocnářský Vizovice, the Vizovice Joint-Stock Fruit Agricultural Factory, or RAZOV for short.
The RAZOV plant was promising due to its location outside the city, which allowed for expansion and its proximity to a railway line.
In 1926, the brothers – who were at odds over the future direction of the business – went their separate ways in business.
Rudolf Jelínek remained at the RAZOV factory and gave the company his own name.
In the 1930s, it began to manufacture kosher spirits, using raw materials and procedures in accordance with the rules of the Orthodox Jewish faith, relying on the fact that its products were characterized by their high quality and were known not only in Czechoslovakia but in other states. .
Indeed, bottles from this period have been kept in the interactive Rudolf Jelínek Museum in Vizovice. Pavel Korec, one of the institution’s curators, spoke to Czech radio.
“In the museum we have historical bottles from the year 1934, when for the first time Rudolf Jelínek managed to export bottles to the United States. It was a product created for the Jewish community and is known as kosher spirits. In 1934 Rudolf Jelínek brought them to the United States and we have managed to preserve a few examples. We displayed them in beautiful oak boxes.
Jelínek’s spirits made their mark on the American market, where they became sought after by the Jewish community there. Indeed, by 1938, the Rudolf Jelínek brand had become the second largest importer of spirits in the United States, according to Wikipedia.
However, as Jelínek’s business boomed, the Nazis were in power in Germany, and the horrific treatment of Jews eventually reached Bohemia and Moravia – with tragic consequences for the family.
Historian Marcel Sladkowski describes their fate.
“Like all Jews, the Jelíneks were discriminated against. Rudolf Jelínek was in the United States from March 1939. He tried to get permission for the family to settle there, but it didn’t work out. So, in the fall of 1939, he returned to the protectorate. German administrators took over management of the company and the Jelíneks were then forced to sell it. In 1943, the Jelíneks, like all the Jews of Vizovice, were sent to Terezin and then to death camps. Rudolf and his wife were sent to Auschwitz in the fall of 1944, where they both died.
After World War II, the business was in very bad shape, although Rudolf’s sons were determined to restore it to its former glory. They even managed to start exporting again.
However, this time the communist takeover was imminent and the Jelínek family’s ties to the company were severed forever.
“Rudolf Jelínek had two sons, Zdeněk and Jiří. Unlike Rudolf and his wife, they survived the war. The eldest, Zdeněk, survived the war as a resistance fighter. Jiří survived Auschwitz. They returned to Vizovice and took over the family business. However, Zdeněk was seriously ill – he had tuberculosis – and died a year after the end of the war. Ownership gradually reverted to Jiří, who at the time was still a minor. He turned 18 in 1948. However, the company was nationalized and a year later Jiří emigrated to Israel.
Although plum brandy is its flagship product, the company has always produced other spirits as well.
After the war, Rudolf Jelínek produced six products: slivovitz, borovička (juniper brandy), Denis Mounié (cognac under French license), rhum, cordial and kirsch.
In 1953, due to a stagnation in brandy sales, the portfolio was reduced to slivovitz, borovička, kirsch and apricot brandy, which entered production around this time.
And throughout this period, the company’s communist operators maintained the internationally known brand name, says historian Marcel Sladkowski.
“The enterprise continued to operate and retained the beneficial brand name Rudolf Jelínek, although it was under state management. Indeed, for the state, the production of slivovitz in Vizovice was advantageous – c It was a good source of hard currency, so they kept the Rudolf Jelínek brand and continued production until 1989. After the Velvet Revolution, the company passed into private hands.
Although the company has seen many changes over the decades, its distinctive labels have hardly changed, says Pavel Korec of the Rudolf Jelínek Museum in Vizovice.
“We say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We have tried to keep the label in the same shape as when it was designed by Rudolf Jelínek himself. We had to modify it slightly in terms of the material used and in terms of graphics and embossing. But we try to keep the label in the spirit it has always had.
Today, the Rudolf Jelínek company produces plum brandy, pear brandy and other fruit spirits.
In 2020, he launched a major new venture, the Slivovitz Museum, a stone’s throw from Malostranská metro station in Prague.