Rudolf Jelínek: Moravian slivovitz maker with a fascinating history
Rudolf Jelínek is one of Czechia’s best-known brands of slivovitz (slivovice in Czech). The plum brandy firm was set up in Moravia in the late 19th century and the brand is still going strong today.
The makers of Rudolf Jelínek slivovitz say that the company is continuing a tradition of alcohol production in the Wallachia region that stretches back over 400 years.
The first written record of a distillery in the area of Vizovice, where Rudolf Jelínek is based, dates from 1585.
The climate of this part of the Zlín Region in the far east of Czechia is especially suitable for the cultivation of plums, which sparked 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 instance, around the year 1900 there were around 77,000 fruit trees in the Vizovice area alone and of that number 68,000 were plum trees.”
The Rudolf Jelínek brand did not start with Rudolf himself, though he helped make it into one of Czechia’s most recognisable alcoholic drinks.
The story really begins with his father, Zikmund Jelínek.
Marcel Sladkowski explains a little of the family history.
“The Jelínek family don’t come from Vizovice originally – they’re from the Uherský brod area. One branch were from Luhačovice. That was the family of Jakub Jelínek, who ran a brewery there. He had 11 children. His oldest son Zikmund moved from Luhačovice to Vizovice, where from 1882 he rented a distillery.”
Around a decade later Zikmund Jelínek – having by then acquired plenty of experience in the field – set up a distillery of his own.
“It was created 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 set up his own distillery. And after that even more distilleries were set up in Vizovice.”
In 1919 the brothers Rudolf and Vladimír Jelínek took over the business in Vizovice from their father, giving it the name Sons of Zikmund Jelínek.
Interestingly there are labels from that time with English-language text, including “Plum brandy, old straight”. Slivovice is spelt in the Czech way.
Two years later they bought out a large distillery in an outlying part of Vizovice and began production there.
The new plant had been set up as Rolnický akciový závod ovocnářský Vizovice, Agricultural Joint-Stock Fruit Plant Vizovice, or RAZOV for short.
The RAZOV plant was promising due to its location outside the town, which allowed for expansion and proximity to a railway line.
In 1926 the brothers – who were at odds over the future direction of the company – went their seperate ways in business.
Rudolf Jelínek remained at the RAZOV plant and gave his own name to the company.
In the 1930s, he started making kosher spirits, using raw materials and procedures in accordance with the rules of the Orthodox Jewish faith, drawing on the fact that his products were characterized by their high quality and were known not just in Czechoslovakia but some other states.
Indeed, bottles from that period have been preserved at the Rudolf Jelínek interactive 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 succeeded in exporting bottles to the United States. It was a product created for the Jewish community and is known as kosher spirits. In 1934 Rudolf Jelínek got those into the States and we have managed to save a few examples. We have them displayed in lovely oak cases.”
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 world’s second largest importer of spirits to the US, according to Wikipedia.
However while Jelínek’s company was on the up, the Nazis were in power in Germany and horrific treatment of Jews eventually reached Bohemia and Moravia – with tragic consequences for the family.
Historian Marcel Sladkowski outlines their fate.
“Like all Jews, the Jelíneks suffered discrimination. Rudolf Jelínek was in the United States from March 1939. He tried to obtain permission for the family to move there but that didn’t work out. So in the autumn of 1939 he returned to the Protectorate. German administrators took over the running of the company and the Jelíneks were later forced to sell it. In 1943 the Jelíneks, like all the Jews in Vizovice, were sent to Terezin and then to death camps. Rudolf and his wife were sent to Auschwitz in autumn 1944, where they both died.”
After World War II the company was in very bad shape, though Rudolf’s sons were determined to restore it to its former glory. They even succeeded in starting to export again.
However, this time the Communist takeover was around the corner 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 older one, 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 went to Jiří, who at that time was still a minor. He turned 18 in 1948. However the firm was nationalised and a year later Jiří emigrated to Israel.”
Though plum brandy is its flagship product, the company has always produced other spirits as well.
After the war Rudolf Jelínek was making six products: slivovitz, borovička (juniper brandy), Denis Mounié (cognac under French license), rum, cordial and kirsch.
In 1953, due to a stagnation in brandy sales, the portfolio was narrowed down to slivovitz, borovička, kirsch and apricot brandy, which entered production at that time.
And throughout this period the firm’s Communist operators maintained the internationally known brand name, historian Marcel Sladkowski says.
“The company kept operating and retained the beneficial brand name Rudolf Jelínek, though it was under state management. That’s because for the state the production of slivovitz in Vizovice was advantageous – it was a good source of hard currency. So they kept the brand Rudolf Jelínek and continued production until 1989. After the Velvet Revolution the firm went into private hands.”
While the company has been through many changes over the decades, its distinctive labels are little changed, says Pavel Korec from 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 have had to slightly change it in terms of the material used and in terms of the graphic design and embossing. But we try to maintain the label in the spirit that it has always had.”
Today the company Rudolf Jelínek produces plum brandy, pear brandy and other fruit spirits.
In 2020 it launched a major new venture, the Slivovitz Museum, a stone’s throw from Malostranská Metro station in Prague.