History in a Vodka Bottle: How Baczewski Ruled European Royal Courts, Invented Marketing & Rose from the Ashes
The history of Baczewski vodka encapsulates a mini-history of Poland. The only spirit that came close to its success is now a household name: Smirnoff. If you’re unfamiliar with Baczewski, get ready for a tale of innovative marketing, geopolitics, tragedy and defiance.
One of the main things foreigners associate with Poland is, obviously, vodka. As most North-Eastern Europe, we belong to the so-called ‘vodka belt’ (as opposed to the ‘wine’ and ‘beer’ belts), which means this liquor made from grains or potatoes is the most popular alcoholic drink. Among other reasons, it’s just too cold to make wine here, and we only have a few wineries, mostly in the Lubuskie voivodeship, near the city of Zielona Góra.
Along with the Scandinavians and other Slavic nations we have developed something we could call ‘vodka drinking culture’, which doesn’t have to mean getting completely wasted – as people often think – but includes drinking rituals, toasts and specific food pairings. We tend to consider vodka quite a serious matter, not to be drunk with anyone on any given day, but rather to celebrate special occasions and good company.
A few of the world’s most popular vodka brands come from Poland – Wyborowa was served during the first Concorde flight in 1969 and was recently present at the Oscars and MTV awards, while Belvedere is currently James Bond’s official vodka.
But there is one particular brand which not only helps understand the last 250 years in the complicated history of Poland, but also forms a great chapter in the history of marketing and advertising: J.A. Baczewski.
1782: The brand is born
The story of the Baczewski brand begins in the village of Wybranówka near Lviv with the Jewish entrepreneur Lejb Beczeles. The beginnings of the company remain quite mysterious, but what we do know is that in 1782, Beczeles opened the first distillery and in the mid-19th century the company was moved to the outskirts of Lviv by Lejb’s grandson Leopold Maksymilian who decided to change his name into the more Polish-sounding Baczewski. There he started building a factory, the gate of which you can still see on Chmielnickiego Street.
At the time the brand was called L.M. Baczewski and it already had a branch in Vienna – as Lviv was part of the Austrian empire of the Habsburgs. In the age of innovation and discovery, Leopold cherished getting the newest distillation equipment. The company also started producing new spirits to meet the needs of the Austrians: lavender-scented kontuszówka and rose-petal rosolio which was said to be Emperor Franz Joseph’s favourite drink.
Soon the quality of Baczewski’s products was recognised by the authorities: the company was granted the title of the Purveyor to the Imperial and Royal Court and given the right to put the Habsburg’s imperial eagle on the bottles. Later it was also named the Galician National Producer of Rosolios and Liqueurs – therefore becoming the most important liquor company in Central Europe.
J.A. Baczewski: Polish marketing genius
As you realise by now, the initials J.A. that we see on the bottles today, don’t belong to the company’s founder. They come from his great-grand son Józef Adam, who began running the business in 1856 and contributed to the brand’s amazing success. J.A. became not only one of the great industrialists of his time, but also a marketing pioneer.
First of all, he was one of the first entrepreneurs to understand that a special product deserves special presentation. He started pouring his vodka into specially-designed clear-glass bottles which were then adorned with fancy labels. Moreover, he masterfully took advantage of the promotional opportunities granted by national and international fairs – events which were extremely important in 19th-century Europe. At the General National Exhibition held in Lviv in 1894, the company presented a pavilion shaped like a gigantic decanter.
These displays of greatness continued after his passing in 1911 when his sons Leopold and Henryk took over. Baczewski won a whole lot of prizes at exhibitions and fairs from Vienna to Paris and from Moscow to London.
Famous Polish writer Stanisław Lem who grew up in Lviv was especially fond of the Baczewski pavilion presented in the 1930s at the Eastern Trade Fair, as he recalls in his autobiographical novel High Castle:
A great meander created by the longest, semi-circular pavilion which with half of its arch embraced the Baczewski pavilion (the one laid out with liquor bottles). When one stood under the Baczewski tower, one could awaken the echo sleeping in space; a hand-clap, if strong enough, could be heard four, five, even six times, just like every shout. Oh, how many prizes there were!
Keep your friends close & your enemies even closer
When it comes to the production of spirits, Baczewski reigned almost supreme – almost, since the brand had only one major rival: Smirnoff.
The rivalry between Baczewski and Russia’s most famous vodka company (which later on became a great success in the US and played an important role in the American ‘cocktail revolution’) was an intense, though quite friendly one. One could say that the two famous brands actually used their rivalry as a collaboration, since at a certain point on the Baczewski label one could read:
The only vodka that can compare to this one is produced by Piotr Smirnoff from Russia.
The accompanying opposite statement about Baczewski could be seen on the ‘rival’ Russian bottles.
The interwar period was Baczewski’s golden age. Under the visionary lead of Stefan Baczewski, it became the most exported brand of all Polish spirits, travelling even to Canada and Australia. The most popular types were orange and cherry liqueurs, but many others were produced to suit varied tastes – rye vodkas, araks and brandies, among other flavours. Baczewski’s products were even served at the British royal court – it became a hit in the UK after winning all possible awards at the London Spirits Competition in 1925.
What’s more, the company was also the first alcohol exporter to ship their products by plane, therefore creating a lot of buzz about Baczewski vodka being desired in Paris. The brand also created what can be considered the first professional advertising campaign in the Polish press designed by the artist Edward Kazubski. The Baczewski family was also active when it comes to social activities: Stefan, for example, was a councillor in the city of Lviv and a member of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Destruction & renewal
Everything was ruined though with the beginning of World War II. Not only did the bombs destroy the factories and destroy all of the company’s reserves, but, most tragically, cousins Adam and Stefan Baczewski who ran the company at the time were arrested by the Russians – Stefan was executed in Katyń, while Adam’s exact destiny still remains unknown.
After 1945, all vodka production in Poland was nationalised, since the country was now a puppet of the Soviet Union and capitalism had become anathema to the new socialist state. The four remaining members of the Baczewski family decided to move to Vienna – after all, they knew the city very well and had a long family history of doing business in the Austrian capital. This Viennese factory still operates today, and for years has been doing business across Western Europe as well as in the USA.
But in Poland, the brand had vanished for decades. It finally returned as recently as 2011 with its signature product: clear potato vodka. Along with this classic came some interesting variations such as blackberry, apricot and orange liqueurs, herbal piołunówka made with wormwood, ovovit – a sweet liqueur made with eggs and sugar – and dry gin.
The comeback wasn’t easy – the current owners didn’t actually speak Polish and were afraid of a market ruled by big multi-national corporations. But thanks to the help of Polish communications strategist Paweł Gorczyca and a strong new trend in Poland for quality products from smaller, family companies, Baczewski has been able to return and keep a 235-year-old tradition alive in the country where its heart belongs.
In a symbol of this link to Poland, the last pre-war Baczewski bottle, although given to the new owners, was donated to the new History of Vodka Museum due to open in Warsaw's historic Praga district.
Written by Natalia Mętrak-Ruda, Jan 2018