The quiet lane which leads to the distillery runs parallel to the tracks of the original 1845 Warsaw-Vienna Railway. Pronounced, ‘Chu-Rar-Doff’, Żyrardów was a key industrial town at the time the railway was constructed so was connected with its own station. With its fairy-tale style architecture, this cute little station still stands on the opposite side, on the tracks just minutes before you reach the distillery.
Perhaps sensing the troubled times to come the Pines brothers, who were Jewish, sold their distillery. Soon after - in 1932 the new owners extensively modernised the equipment to make it one of the most technologically advanced in Europe at the time. Then in 1939 the fortunes of the distillery and those who worked there were dashed by German invasion of Poland and subsequent Second World War.
In 1945, after the cessation of war, the new communist regime nationalised Żyrardów along with 24 other vodka producing facilities which where all renamed ‘Polmos’ followed by the name of the nearest town. Thus the Pines’ distillery became ‘Polmos Żyrardów. The distillery was one of the few actually equipped to rectify spirit so Żyrardów supplied some of the non-distilling Polmos with rectified spirit. During this period Żyrardów also blended and bottled various brands of vodka, the recipes and rights to which it shared with the other Polmos. These included Wyborowa, Zubrowka and Luksusowa, the recipes to which are still held by Polmos Żyrardów to this day.
The blending team at Polmos Żyrardów sought to create their own luxury blend that would distinguish them from the other Polmos distilleries. They called their new vodka Belvedere after the Belweder Palace (Pałac Belwederski) in Warsaw. This historic royal palace is the former residence of Poland's Marshal Józef Piłsudski and was the first residence of Lech Wałęsa after his election as Poland’s President. The name of the Palace translates as ‘beautiful to see’ and this grand yet elegant building sits high above a landscaped park. The first bottles were produced in 1994 and the new vodka quickly gained a reputation amongst Poles for being amongst the finest available, even back in those communist days it commanded a premium price.
Far away from communist Poland, over in the United States Absolut vodka was a pop-culture sensation. One American, Edward Jay Phillips (Eddie, to his friends), a third generation liquor distributor, wondered if the market was ready for a vodka which could be marketed as being even more premium than Absolut. So he and his business partners travelled to Poland, vodka’s birthplace, and toured the country and its distilleries to search for such a liquid. In 1994, Eddie formed the Millennium Import Company and the next year, after protracted negotiations with the Polish government, acquired the sole U.S. rights to Belvedere and Chopin vodkas.
Eddie knew that to position Belvedere as a super-premium vodka he would need a super-premium bottle. The result was Belvedere’s now instantly recognisable tall, slender, frosted bottle with a drawing of the palace screen printed on the back, appearing through the clear window on the front, magnified by vodka and framed by two snow-covered trees. This was the world’s first acid etched spirits bottle and it was the result of a technical development by Saint-Gobain Glass. Its production involves using a rubber sticker to protect part of the bottle and then using acid to ‘frost’ the exposed surface. A four step printing process is then used to apply the text, the tree, the word ‘vodka’ in blue and then the snow on the tree and the bar code. Finally the bottles are then sterilized in an oven at 700° C.
Resplendent in its new bottle, Belvedere was launched in the US in early 1996 and Eddie’s hunch that the country was ready for a super-premium vodka proved to be correct as sales of the brand quickly grew.
In 1998 the desire to ensure Belvedere’s consistent quality led Millennium, in partnership with the Polish state, to invest in modernisation of the rectifying columns at Polmos Żyrardów moving from two column to three column rectification. Millennium’s commitment to the distillery was further developed when in October 2001, the newly elected Polish government privatised Polmos Żyrardów with Millennium Imports LLC as the main shareholder alongside the now capitalist state.
It emerged that although Belvedere Vodka was already an established brand in Europe the trademark to the name ‘Belevedere’ in the USA was owned by the Belvedere Winery in Healdsburg, California. After negotiations between the two companies, the winery granted a licence to Millennium Imports LLC to use the brand in the US. Meanwhile sales of Belvedere Vodka continued to grow as the premium vodka category, which Belvedere had started, was bolstered by the launch of Grey Goose and Ketel One.
Belvedere’s leading role in the newly emerged premium vodka category understandably came to the attention of LVMH, the luxury goods conglomerate behind brands such as Louis Vuitton and Krug. LVMH recognise a premium brand when they see one and in July 2002 purchased a 40% stake in Millennium Imports. This was raised to 70% and eventually to 100% in April 2005 to make Millennium Imports a wholly-owned subsidiary of LVMH.
Then in 2005, William R. Hambrecht, Belvedere Winery's founder, whose background was Investment Banking, announced that his company intended to use the Belvedere brand name on a range of spirits they sort to develop with another partner. So on 10th November 2005 Belvedere Winery terminated Millennium's license to use the brand name in the United States.
Millennium Imports was left in the difficult situation of being denied access to the trademark of a brand it had already successfully established in America. They had little choice but to continue to sell Belvedere vodka while solutions were explored. This resulted in Belvedere Winery instigating litigation with the issuing of a cease and desist order. In April 2007, a Californian Federal district court ruled that Millennium had breached its license to sell Belvedere vodka and that continued sales of Belvedere Vodka infringed Belvedere Winery's trademark rights.
Millennium found itself literally bent over a winery barrel and was forced to stop fulfilling orders for Belvedere vodka from U.S. distributors while it looked at options which obviously included negotiating to buy the rights to the brand name from Belvedere Winery. An undisclosed, but inevitably large sum of money later, and Millennium Imports acquired the Belvedere trademark allowing it to resume sales of its vodka in the United States. The Belvedere Winery was quietly renamed C. Donatiello Winery.
Incidentally, while I am giving you this background information on the companies that have owned and marketed Belvedere Vodka, it is also worth dispelling a common misconception. Belvedere vodka has absolutely no connection with Belvedere Groupe, the French company connected to Marie Brizard liqueurs and Sobieski Vodka. The names are simply a somewhat confusing coincidence.