Do you know what’s the difference between a bullock and a bison, the bovidae cousins? Every Kaunesian will give you the correct answer right away. The first one can be seen in the coat of arms of Kaunas, and the second one is the symbol of the city’s and country’s oldest (it’s celebrating the 110 years anniversary in 2016) spirits factory ‘Stumbras’ (that’s what the name means – a bison). The best part is that the factory owns a museum – that’s where we’re heading today. But first, some history.
The origins of ‘Stumbras’ lie in an 1894 law on monopolising alcohol production by state-owned enterprises in the Russian Empire. The government of Kaunas acquired a suitable plot of land in 1903; the buildings were finished and production started at the end of 1906. During World War I Lithuania was occupied by Germany and production of strong alcohol was forbidden. The main building was converted into a public bathhouse.
After Lithuania declared its independence, the idea of rebuilding the factory circulated around until around 1921–22, when the company received large investments for rebuilding and modernisation. The production of strong alcoholic drinks was still a monopoly, generating considerable income for the national budget. During the Soviet occupation all factories were nationalised, and this one was no exception – it continued to operate, though. A few other factories were merged with Stumbras, making it the largest alcohol producer in the country. After we regained our independence in 1990, Stumbras was a state-owned company until 2003 and was then privatised by ‘Mineraliniai vandenys’. It’s now one of the biggest taxpayers in the country.
The museum that the article is actually about was opened in 2009. It’s the first and perhaps only distilled beverage museum in Lithuania. It’s important that you schedule a visit before you arrive. You can conveniently do it here.
It’s an experience absolutely worth a phone call or an email, as the museum provides an overview not only of the history of the distillery, but of the country’s drinking culture and the company’s role in the development of Lithuanian industrialisation as well. The exhibition of vintage labels is a real treat to graphic designers and everyone else into packaging.
Both the distillery, which still operates in building that are 100 years old, and the museum itself contribute to historical memory, and also allow visitors to see how beverages are created and bottled at ‘Stumbras’ today.
To enhance the experience, a tour is always followed by a tasting (you choose how long the list is. The exit is, of course, through the gift shop. It’s not your average liqueur store as you can also purchase the unique 27-herb extract of ‘999’, the Lithuania’s answer to Jagermeister, that is not on sale anywhere else.
Oh, and you don’t have to go much further for yet another #kaunastic experience. Right next to the museum, in the same building of the factory, there’s a rock/metal/punk/etc club ‘Lemmy’, named after the notorious leader of ‘Motörhead’. Live local bands and guests from other countries are quite often on the menu, and the bar has a decent selection of beers on tap.
All of this can be found right next to the Kaunas Railway Station. If ‘Lemmy’ is still closed when you leave the museum, do stroll around the surrounding streets as they are full of interwar modern architecture we in Kaunas are very proud of. Download the 'Kaunas of 1919-1940' app (iOS or Android) for deeper investigations.
Photos courtesy of stumbras.eu