Russians had been drinking tea for fewer than 175 years when Klonimos Wolf Wissotzky founded the Wissotzky Tea Company in 1849 at the age of 25. His timing could not have been better. According to The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide by Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss, it was not until 1689 that a “measurable exchange of goods and materials, including Chinese tea, began to flow between China and Russia.”
Prior to that Russians drank sbiten–a concoction of herbs and honey steeped in hot water. But by the late 19th century, tea was “hot” in Russia and Wissotzky–a young Russian Jew living in Moscow–quickly emerged as one of the country’s most prosperous tea distributors. Wissotzky’s was even named the exclusive tea supplier for the Emperor’s Court.
In the early 20th century, the company entered a significant and sustained period of transition, developing its own tea plantations in India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to support the growing demand for the beverage in Russia, Ukraine, and Poland. In 1904–the same year that founder, Klonimos Wissotzky, died–the company opened a branch in New York City to cater to Russian immigrants in America. The company continued to mushroom over the next decade, establishing new branches across Europe (including London, Poland, and Italy). By 1917 the Russian Revolution forced the company to shut down operations in Russia, and instead focus on international ventures.
Nineteen years later, in 1936, a descendent of the Wissotzky family named Shimon Zidler opened a tea plant in Palestine (now Israel), which eventually became the company’s primary headquarters. In addition to being known as a Torah scholar and tea merchant during his life, Klonimos Wissotzky had been a fervent supporter of Zionism. He regularly contributed money to development organizations and yeshivas in Palestine and, according to the company website, moving Wissotzky’s to Israel had been Klonimus’ hope and intention from the beginning.
The company settled quickly into its new home as evidenced by an article in a 1960s issue of Time magazine. The article describes a post-1967 war advertisement for the tea, which read:
The gallant fighters of the Tank Corps appreciate a good cup of tea as the most invigorating drink. That is why the designer of the famous British Centurion provided facilities for crew to brew tea inside their tanks. A good soldier will endure every hardship, but he will not give up his glass of tea. Wissotzky Tea, of course.
Over the last forty years, Wissotzky’s has continued to grow, automating their facilities, adding new flavors and products to their line, and expanding their delivery fleet both within Israel and across the world. Now run by fifth generation family members, Wissotzky’s produces more than 200 different products (e.g. green and black teas, chais and herbal and fruit blends), and their wooden gift boxes (a.k.a. “magic tea chests”) have become a ubiquitous take-home souvenir for tourists to Israeli.
In 2005, after an 80-year hiatus, they even began selling tea in Russia again, launching a line of premium black teas designed with a contemporary Russian consumer in mind. According to the Wissotzky website, the company now “leads the tea sector in Israel with a market share of about 78%”–though in March of 2009, it discontinued its iced tea product, Ice T due to low profits and steep competition from companies like Coca Cola-owned Nestea. Still, despite any minor setbacks, Wissotzky’s maintains an impressive track record and a fresh public image, especially considering that the company turned 160-years old in 2009. There must be something about that tea.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.