The history of Rudolf Jelínek: Family feuds, troubled takeovers, and a revolutionary recovery
Known globally for the production of slivovitz, a brandy made from damson plums, Rudolf Jelínek is a brand underpinned by a long and rich heritage. Producing the fruit spirit from Vizovice in the Zlín Region of the Czech Republic for centuries, the Rudolf Jelínek journey has been turbulent yet inspiring.
Here at Whisky Kingdom, we’re passionate about bringing you the widest selection of spirits, from tried and tested favourites to rare or up-and-coming labels – and knowing a thing or two about the brands behind the bottles makes sampling them even better.
Let’s explore the long legacy of Rudolf Jelínek…
Continuing a 400-year tradition
The production of alcohol in the Vizovice region can be traced to more than 400 years ago, with the first written evidence of a distillery dating back to 1585. Back then, the waste from beer production was distilled, and later grain was used for production of rye whisky.
Now, the area is a thriving hub of fruit orchards thanks to its geographical location providing a suitable climate. Slivovitz started being produced around the mid-18th century and production boomed in the early 19th century, thanks to state subsidies that catapulted slivovitz to prominence.
The Jelínek family arrived in Vizovice in 1882, renting a distillery from local landowner Aron Eichen. However, rather than head of the family Jakub Jelínek running the distillery, his son Zikmund Jelínek was put in charge.
By the end of the 19th century, several major distilleries had set up shop in Vizovice with three leading the way; Karel Singer, RAZOV, and Zikmund’s site were known as the ‘Big Three’ and had a decisive impact on the development of the distilling industry in Vizovice.
The famed family feuds
In 1919, the then 60-year-old Zikmund Jelínek retired, leaving the company under the management of his sons Rudolf and Vladimír. Soon after the young brothers took the reins, they acquired rivalry distillery RAZOV in 1921, giving them access to its prime location and opening the door to even faster development.
However, the business brothers were soon to butt heads, causing a major change to the business. In 1926, just five years later, the brothers quarrelled over the management of the company and parted ways. Rudolf Jelínek stayed with RAZOV and renamed the company after himself, whilst Vladimír continued at the original location.
The catalyst for Rudolf’s success was the decision to begin producing kosher spirits in the 1930s. After the end of Prohibition in the United States in 1934, he was able to export kosher products overseas for the first time, ultimately forming the backbone of his international success.
A time of tragic turmoil
As things were looking promising for Rudolf’s production of kosher slivovitz, the Second World War would bring a tragic fate. Due to the Jelínek family’s Jewish ancestry, almost every family member was killed during the war, with only Rudolf’s sons, Zdeněk and Jiří, surviving.
The company was placed into sequestration during wartime, until 1945 when the sons took over the management of the company. However, more misfortune would befall the Jelínek family just a short year later, when Zdeněk died from wartime suffering. Jiří, the final surviving family member, was left to continue the business.
Despite a determination to continue the distillery’s pre-war success, more change was on the horizon that would see Jiří, and his family, go into exile. On 28th April 1948, the company was nationalised and over the coming years, the production was folded into a state-owned enterprise.
Despite this, the quality of the Jelínek spirit didn’t waver and slivovitz continued to be produced under the highly reputable Rudolf Jelínek brand. However, during this process, from 1948 to 1994, the ownership changed multiple times causing the decline of the company.
Land and legacy
Whilst Vizovice provides the ultimate conditions for plum trees, the forced collectivisation of agriculture resulted in almost all orchards in the region to be destroyed. Resuming this tradition, the Jelínek distillery returned to the slopes of Vizovice in 2003, buying land and planting plum trees of their own. This milestone move revolted nationalisation, bringing the company back to private ownership and marking the start of its recovery.
In 2004, the company opened a visitor centre called ‘Distillery Land’, which was a major investment to welcome guests to its site. With a tour of the distillery and an inside look at the distillation process, it required a major remodelling of the production facilities. Fortunately, the visitor centre was a success and inspired ideas for an even bigger project. In 2020 the distillery launched the Slivovitz Museum in Prague, where visitors can learn about the history and production of fruit spirits through virtual reality.
Despite a turbulent journey, the Jelínek story demonstrates true passion to continue what the founding family members had started, overcoming adversity to become what is now one the largest producers of fruit brandy in the world.
At Whisky Kingdom, we’re proud to stock a wide range of Rudolf Jelínek bottles, including the signature plum brandy, the refreshing pear varieties, and beautifully packaged gift sets. Discover this iconic distillery for yourself and explore the full range.