Centuries ago monasteries were the main hub of scientific experimentation. Not surprisingly the industrious monks concocted potent herbal elixirs where spices and herbs soaked in alcohol created delightful infusions and distillations, such as Vana Tallinn.
Intended for medicinal purposes such as easing childbirth, indigestion or purportedly extending one’s life, the potions were sold initially to the nearby villagers.
These liqueurs were considered so tasty they eventually found their way to fine dining tables such as that of Catherine De Medici, wife of Henry II of France, who introduced the culture of liqueur drinking to the French Court.
The modern monks of today have kept these early recipes secret and only a handful of masters are entrusted to produce the distinctive liqueurs.
An Important Trip to France
Shortly before the outbreak of WW II, Jaan Siimo, a sailor from Estonia, traveled to France and tasted a unique liqueur that intrigued him so much that he started experimenting with a recipe later in Estonia after the war. Together with two other co-workers at Liviko, the state owned distillery, they entered their special blend liqueur, Vana Tallinn – (vah-na) – (Old Tallinn) in a USSR wide-competition.
The apparatchik (agents of the apparatus) were looking for a special new liqueur to commemorate yet another award winning accomplishment by the citizenry of the Soviet Union.
Vana Tallinn won the coveted prize and became the flagship drink for Liviko.
This spicy sweet liqueur was not very popular with the Estonians. However, the 100% proof clout of Jamaican rum proved to be a hit for those seeking a temporary escape from the bizarre and bewildering existence they were living within the stagnating Soviet Union. Going to work had become a pointless routine and this magic potion appeared just at the right time.
Tourism Launches Vana Tallinn
When Finnish tourists were permitted to come to Estonia they discovered Vana Tallinn and suddenly the experimental liqueur became an overnight hit and much sought after. The brown bottle of spicy syrup became a money maker and even Russian tourists took as many bottles as they could home with them.
The visitors found the brand appealing and once they downed a few shots, the fact that the date on the label was not medieval was irrelevant.
The brand served to reflect humble monastic beginnings: the austere brown bottle in the form of a medieval tower, the label depicting the skyline of medieval Tallinn, the coat of arms lending a medieval “authenticity”.
The Phenomenal Journey from a Souvenir Bottle to Currency
Head waiters, hair dressers, bartenders and taxi drivers made more money than government ministers. They had contact with visitors and access to the sought after bottles. There was always an extra bottle kept in the vehicle and even truck drivers to Russia took bottles of Vana Tallinn with them. Like a witch’s wand, the appearance of this brown bottle would open doors for them.
When I arrived in soviet Estonia in 1990 one of the first drinks I was offered was a Vana Tallinn. In every home I visited, my hosts would ceremoniously retrieve a dark brown glass bottle out of the china cabinet. Oblivious to the near legendary importance that this bottle symbolized, I graciously accepted a tiny stemmed glass full of the dark burgundy coloured beverage. I sensed there was something special about this drink other than the 40 spices and flavors and Jamaican rum that flowed across my palate.
Vana Tallinn was not exported to Russia but rather found its way there as a “gift”. It was considered an elite drink all the way up to the topmost echelons of the soviet hierarchy of technocrats.
“Stagna aeg” – the Period of Soviet Stagnation
Drinking certainly helped to temporarily escape the effects of economic stagnation, or in Estonian “stagna aeg”.
Starting in the late 1960s the Plan, the backbone of soviet planning, was out of control. It was no longer realistic to meet the goals for the Plan. Inefficient factories could not keep up with all those infamous five year plans and no one at home or abroad wanted to buy the poor quality products they produced. The factory owners brought down their goals to look like they went over the plan. They “earned” their medals while daily life launched into further absurdity.
In 1978 the situation degenerated into an economic crisis where shortages of food and consumer goods created long lines of people holding ration coupons. The era of stagnation had arrived.
Locked into the rigid farce of the system, the technocrats and managers in charge of the economy were pillaging it. Bottles of Vana Tallinn became harder to come by. They were still offered at the valutta (foreign exchange) stores for tourists but it was becoming more difficult for those truck drivers to take this currency on their trips.
The Inevitable End and a New Beginning
The Old World brand that worked so well during the soviet era lost its popularity in the early 1990s when the newly independent citizens wanted nothing to do with anything that reminded them of the Soviet regime they’d had to tolerate. . Whenever I saw that bottle of Vana Tallinn I felt the same repugnance. The close association the brand represented with totalitarian rule was something no one wanted to remember.
Liviko got busy giving the Vana Tallinn brand a facelift. A new generation of consumers who weren’t even born have rekindled the popularity of Vana Tallinn. New editions have been created that have taken the Vana Tallinn signature taste to a new level.
Since 2007, Vana Tallinn has received industry recognition with a Silver Medal in the 2008 San Francisco World Spirits competition, a 94 rated review in the April 2008 edition of “The Tasting Panel” magazine and a Gold designation of 90 points from the Beverage Testing Institute in their 2009 International Review of Spirits.
Warning, don’t let the unassuming brown bottle fool you. This 80-100 proof liqueur produced by Liviko in Estonia will have you speaking in both Russian and Estonian before the night is over, fluently.
International Spirits Competition 2010 Gold
The International Wine and Spirit Competition 2010 Gold (Best in Class)
Internationaler Spirituosenwettbewerb ISW 2008 Gold
Estonian Spirit Challenge 2007
The International Wine and Spirit Competition 2006 Silver (Best in Class)
Estonian Spirit Challenge 2006
Vana Tallinn liqueur is currently exported to 22 countries and recently the 100 millionth bottle was sold.
Today in the 21st century we are still able to enjoy the liqueurs created by the monastic entrepreneurs from centuries ago. Vana Tallinn is one offshoot of that thanks to a sailorman and a soviet twist of fate.