Once a nuclear power engineer, today Ukrainian Alex Kirichuk operates the world's only solar-powered organic distillery. Together with wife Iryna and daughter Victoria, their bespoke spirits and herbal tonics have found favour around the world. They now also manufacture hand sanitiser.
I grew up in USSR in the region that is now Ukraine. All our lives we were dictated to by the Communist Party, but there were minuses and pluses to that system, including free education. During childhood, part of that free education, everybody was welcome to make sports training for free. At school most people wanted to play soccer, basketball or volleyball, but I am crazy and make sailing my sport, even though nobody respects sailing in 1968 because communist ideology was totally against sports like golf and sailing because they are considered bourgeois. But USSR also wanted Olympic gold medals - if golf was an Olympic sport, they would make a golf school, and Olympic sailing did exist. I had never seen a yacht except on the horizon, so when I joined sailing school at 14 I was very happy to have such luxury. Even if my parents did not eat or drink or spend any rouble from their salary, they could never buy a yacht, because in USSR private yacht was forbidden and you could only sail if you were training for the Olympics.
We sailed on the Black Sea in Odessa, where there was a population of about one million and maybe only 100 people sailed. If our results were good, the next season we would have a better yacht and better sails, but if we showed a bad result, the coach would give us the worst yacht and worst sails. We also made everything by hand, painting, sewing sails, making repairs so I became a very skilled handyman - but I did not go to the Olympics.
I met my wife Iryna when she was at medical university. After graduation she worked as a paediatric cardiologist then she became the doctor for our yacht club, and looked after the Olympic sailing team when they visited Odessa. This was top secret but, back then, the USSR allowed selected doctors to use herbal medicine called adaptogens, but only for cosmonauts and Olympic sportsmen, and this helped USSR avoid doping tests because adaptogens are a natural way to improve performance and Iryna became the Olympic Sailing team's secret weapon.
At university I wanted to be a refrigeration engineer, but the party dictated what you studied and they chose a different direction for me - nuclear power engineer. If you don't do as they say, they will make your life difficult so I say "why not" and accept my fate. They also knew only to choose males, because it is not good for children born to women in this profession.
The power company I worked for in Odessa had two nuclear power stations in construction but then Chernobyl happened on April 26, 1986. I did not go too deeply into the danger zone but I made three visits and had a reasonable dose of radiation, not like people who die soon after exposure, but I probably should die a little earlier. But my wife does not like this idea and she invented a remedy to clean the radiation from my body. I believe Iryna's special formula saved my life as all my colleagues who had same contact, they're either sick or dead.
I watched Chernobyl, it was very good movie and 98 per cent was true. At that time Mr Gorbachev was top of society and he was bloody bastard because he tried to hide what happened. At the same time he tried to stop Soviet people drinking alcohol, like prohibition, but in Chernobyl everyone was given free wine that was sent in milk tankers. Everyone was encouraged to drink as much red wine as possible, but in the miniseries they show people drinking vodka. That was the only inaccuracy.
In 1991 the USSR was destroyed and inflation was 30 per cent per month, then money stopped circulating and we used coupons to buy things. To visit the supermarket today, it reminds me of USSR when shelves were empty, you might have money but you can't buy anything.
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Despite growing up in Soviet brain-washer machine, we knew the world was different, so we come to New Zealand in 2002 to change hard life for good life. We chose New Zealand because it was far from the stupid place where we lived, nothing against Ukraine as country, good people, but the situation was bad. We wanted quiet country life and sailing so New Zealand is best choice. With permission to reside on our passports, we come with just one bag each, a little money in our pockets, ready for a fresh start then the mystery of fate pointed us to Puhoi.
In Puhoi not many homes were for sale or rent so we visited the pub and the bartender showed us a place behind the pub. It was empty but the owner didn't want to rent it, so we ask, maybe you sell? And it all happened in one day. The landlord was in London and he sells to us cheaply because the property was in very bad condition.
But I can't be nuclear power engineer in New Zealand, and Iryna does not want to start her medical career from scratch so, what to do for us? We decide to make spirits and tonics, so we make a home and a distillery. We plant hundreds of medicinal trees and shrubs. We even find artesian water on this property.
Because of coronavirus, we now create hand sanitiser. Many alcohol-based products have poor smell and are very bad for the skin. The virus might kill you fast, but maybe hand sanitiser will kill you slowly so Iryna creates a sanitiser from solar-distilled food-grade alcohol made from New Zealand wine. It kills any virus and bacteria, but is not bad for your health. We have slowed down our spirits production in order to make hand sanitiser, as we believe everyone should make his contribution to keep New Zealand safe.
When normal life resumes, visitors can once again book for tours of Puhoi Organic Distillery and find out why Lonely Planet declared it one of the best boutique distilleries in the world.