I Became a Ukrainian Vodka Baron

Meet Dan Edelstyn. He’s made a film, he’s resurrected a vodka brand and he’s reviving the fortunes of a faraway Ukrainian village

Halfway through making a documentary about his grandmother, director Dan Edelstyn realised he was going to have to start all over again.

The film he’d been shooting since 2005 – working title From Bolshevism to Belfast – had been a great story. It told of his Jewish grandmother’s sudden exit from Ukraine in the aftermath of the Russian revolution. How privileged, pretty Maroussia Zorokovich had wound up in Belfast, where her husband, Dan’s grandfather, had promptly gone native and become more staunchly Orange than the Paisley family. It was the story of the 20th century – of persecution, revolution, migration and turmoil, of tradition and assimilation.

What made the film so compelling was that it was based on a manuscript written by his grandmother, part of a treasure trove Edelstyn had found up in his mother’s loft – “a suitcase full of photos, letters and negatives,” the 37-year-old director from Hackney tells me. “It was like a time machine into the past and I immediately wanted to go back there, to find out what had happened.”

So far, so good. But on his first recce out to a bleak corner of the Ukraine in 2008 to the village of Douboviazovka, where Edelstyn’s ancestors lived until 1917, he found something which forced him to put three years of planning and work onto the back burner – the family’s vodka factory.

“I had no idea it was there. Up until then the film had been wholly about my granny. A Who Do You Think You Are, sort of thing. But since I’m not famous it was more Who The Fuck Do You Think You Are. And then, suddenly I hit this turning point.”

“The realisation of what I had to do was instantaneous – it blew me away,” says Dan, still brimming with shambolic enthusiasm after four more years of slog. What he had to do – and did – can be guessed from the film’s title, How to Re-establish A Vodka Empire. The world’s first, and only, hyphenate indie filmmaker-vodka baron was born.

Many people dream of making a film. Most fail. People set up businesses all the time. Most fail at that too. But to do both at the same time, when you’re scarcely known in the film world and have no experience of business, well that’s kind of optimistic, isn’t it?

“You do need balls,” says Dan. “You can’t do this sort of thing without commitment. When things get tough you have to keep going. Balls, energy and love.”

Yes, love. Because on top of the whole film/vodka lunacy Edelstyn had also gone all misty-eyed with philanthropy. He’d decided that by reviving the Zorokovich vodka brand, selling it as a premium product, he could help revive the fortunes of his ancestors’ dying village. “I just got carried away with the spirit of the quest” is how he puts it, breezily.

It’s the old standby of the documentary maker who hasn’t got a story – introduce a bogus countdown, a synthetic challenge or a Supersize Me dose of jeopardy. Can Dan revive the fortunes of an entire Ukrainian village? Find out after the break.

“Here I was trying to turn around a village and I’ve done nothing in my life back in England. I’m not some kind of businessman, and here I am making big noises in Ukraine.” But what’s clear from the film is that the resistance Dan meets is genuine and hairy. There’s an uncomfortable scene where he is in the village for the second time and is heckled and jeered at by the locals. “They can get a bit paranoid about film crews turning up, making out they’re all drunks,” Dan now says, defensively.

He also had to convince the current owners of the Douboviazovka Distillery that he’s not there to claim back what many might consider their birthright. “There was initially anxiety about what I was doing there. They were suspicious.” Meanwhile, back in London, wherever he turns for support he meets scepticism. At University College London Dr Francois Guesnet, expert in Russian-Jewish history, puts it to him bluntly – “Are these people your friends? Why are you doing it? You probably will be deceived or disappointed.”

Without giving away the plot of the whole film, let’s just say that Dan has a few hurdles to cross, not least of which is the fact that his wife/camera operator Hilary becomes pregnant and gives birth to their daughter, his dog dies, his first attempt to create a palatable vodka blend stinks and a couple of very enthusiastic meetings with marketing types wind up nowhere. And he’s broke, credit cards maxed out completely.

Most people would have given up after the first hangover. Somehow Dan, driven by what must be the spirits of his ancestors, goes on to create a new blend of vodka, organises for its import into the UK and gets it into Selfridge’s, the Dorchester and No 1 Aldwych, among other places.

“The first thousand bottles you see me carrying up the stairs in the film have sold out, nearly. And I’ve just put in an order for 2,000 more. I’m going out soon to order a further 3,000. We’re creating a demand and it’s building as it goes. To help the village we need to sell maybe 100,000 bottles per year. At the moment the distillery is open for a month and then shut for two, so there’s definitely flexibility at the production end.”

And, let’s not forget, Daniel Edelstyn has made a riveting and thoroughly charming film as he’s gone, ornamented with quirky kitchen-table animation and the sort of dramatic reconstruction which doesn’t have you reaching for your revolver.

“How do I manage to make a film and create a vodka brand? Good question. If you’re juggling then you’ve got to have intense focus on what you’re dealing with. Do one thing, then do another. Don’t get distracted. Love and energy. Energy and love”.

How to Re-establish a Vodka Empire is currently on the festival circuit. Go to www.myvodkaempire.com for more details on the film and the vodka.

How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012

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