Legendary Leopolitans No. 6: The ultimate vodka dynasty
At the beginning of the 20th century Lviv was perhaps best known to the outside world as the home of the famous Baczewski vodka family which exported its celebrated beverages around the world and won the admiration of kings and emperors during an era when Lviv was the eastern outpost of Europe’s great dynastic empires.
The story of the Baczewski family’s rise to fame as providers of superior beverages starts in 1782, when the first distillery run by the family was founded in Wybranowka, a small suburb of Lviv, which at the time was known as Lwow and was ruled by Warsaw. Even today, this distillery is recognised as the oldest Polish plant of its kind in the
world. In 1810 this small spirits factory was inherited by the founder’s son, Leopold Baczewski, who moved the firm to another suburb of Lviv named Zniesienie. The suburb was soon swallowed up by the fast-growing metropolis and the factory at Zolkiewska Street also grew rapidly. The family business was one of four distilleries in Lviv, but it was exceptional for the introduction of new technologies. The liqueurs and vodkas produced at the plant gained a reputation for smoothness and clarity, winning the Baczewski brand an enviable reputation throughout the Habsburg Empire. Within a short period royal patronage followed, and Baczewski products were awarded the right to place the imperial eagle on their bottles. Later on during the Habsburg era, the company became known officially as “Purveyor to the Imperial and Royal Court”.
Jozef Baczewski; Marketing genius
At the end of the 19th century the firm was inherited by the founder’s great grandson, Jozef Baczewski. A graduate of Lviv University of Technology and a specialist in spirits technology, Jozef refurbished and significantly expanded the factory. He also bought new production lines in France and the Netherlands and built a new refinery, laying the groundwork for a later drive towards global export markets. Jozef is credited with beginning the global craze for Polish vodka and popularizing the Polish brand in markets throughout Europe and the Americas. Jozef was also one of the first Eastern European businessmen to engage in large scale marketing, ordering that his vo dka should be sold in distinctive crystal carafe bottles. At the 1894 Habsburg International Trade Fair in Lviv the Baczewski family’s novelty vodka-bottle shaped pavilion was one of the most attended attractions and it was supported by a major advertising campaign of press adverts, posters and pamphlets that was in many ways decades ahead of its time.
Synonymous with Polish vodka
The ground-breaking Jozef Baczewski died on May 17, 1911 and was buried at Lychakivsky cemetery in a distinctive family crypt (pictured). After his death the firm was inherited by two of his sons, Leopold and Henryk. The former was a graduate of the Chemical Faculty of Vienna University and took over production while the latter was a lawyer who continued his father’s active marketing strategy. When Poland regained her independence in 1918 the company had
a well-established brand name. Indeed, such was the brand recognition enjoyed by this Lviv creation that in Polish books and poems of the epoch “Baczewski” was often used as a synonym for “vodka”. During the period between the first and second World Wars the company was run by Leopold’s son, Stefan Baczewski, who embarked on a quality control mission following decades of expansion. To promote the most luxurious of the family’s products, Stefan also signed contracts with two of the leading Polish trans-Atlantic ocean liners, the Pilsudski and the Polonia. Stefan Baczewski was also the first spirits producer to transport his products by plane on a daily basis, with daily deliveries beginning in the 1930s from Lviv to Paris, Prague and Vienna.
Lost amid the regional wreckage of World War II
During the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 the factory was badly damaged by Luftwaffe bombers and when the city was then handed over to the approaching Soviet forces it was eventually destroyed by the communists and leveled to the ground – a paper factory was constructed in its place. The Baczewski family’s residence in Lviv was nationalized and many of the family chose to avoid Bolshevik atrocities by fleeing to Austria, where they remain to this day. However, no war machine was strong enough to kill the legend of Baczewski beverages and their popularity in pop culture was maintained by regular references in Polish and Ukrainian literature and theatre. The last original bottles of Baczewski vodka were still changing hands for large sums of money 30 years after the end of WWII.
Today the famous Baczewski brand has been passed on to the Gessler family, who are distantly related to the original Baczewski family. Based in post-war Vienna, they managed to rebuild much of the international trade which the brand had enjoyed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, for many in Lviv the brand remains a quintessential part of the city’s colourful and cultured imperial odyssey and a reminder of a time when Lviv was synonymous with the very best in culinary quality and the most exclusive liquors.