According to recent reports, a number of gay men and gay rights advocates have begun a campaign to boycott the purchase and consumption of Russian-made vodkas, in respose to an increasingly hostile environment towards gays, lesbians and transgenders in Russia. A report in TheAtlanticWire.com states that a slew of new anti-gay legislation signed into lay by president Vladimir Putin sparked the outrage.
In June, Putin signed a law permitting police officers to arrest tourists and foreign nationals suspected of being gay, lesbian or gay rights advocates, according to a July 23rd piece in the New York Times. The government also passed a broadly written law classifying “homosexual propoganda” as pornography, giving authorities broad rights in arresting, fining and jailing individuals. The Times asserts the law is vague enough to allow for the fining or arrest of anyone (including parents) teaching minors that being gay is acceptable. Photos of gay rights advocates covered in blood during protests, and detained by police, have appeared on Buzzfeed and across the Internet.
In the Atlantic Wire author Alexander Abad-Santos writes, “the face of the Russian vodka boycott is Dan Savage,” an author and national sex columnist who is also known for his online activism against former presidential candidate Rick Santorum and the It Gets Better anti-bullying campaign. Seattle-based Savage noted in an article at thestranger.com that many people are advocating a general boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics, scheduled to be held in Sochi, Russia, due to that countries increasingly dismal record of human rights violations.
In Savage’s post, titled “Why I’m Boycotting Russian Vodka,” he states that “boycott or no boycott, there is something we can do right here, right now in Seattle and other U.S. cities to show our solidarity with Russian queers and their allies…DUMP RUSSIAN VODKA.” He then goes on to name brands like Russian Standard, Putinka, Shustov, Gold Symphony and Stolichnaya.
NY Drinks Examiner reached out to spokespeople for Russian Standard and Stolichnaya, two of the most popular on the list. Russian Standard had not responded at the time of publication (and an update will be added when they do). But Stoli was quick to respond with a statement from CEO Val Mendeleev.
It should be pointed out that, technically Stolichnaya is not a Russian vodka. Though it originated in Russia, and uses Russian ingredients, production today takes place in Latvia (where the brand has been working with the Latvijas Balzams distillery since 1948). Global headquarters, according to the spokesperson, are in Luxemborg, and the product is not associated with the brand name “Stoli” that is sold in Russia. Likewise, though Smirnoff Vodka (not cited by Savage) originated in Russia, the brand is today owned by British company Diageo (the Smirnoff family fled Russia in 1917) and produced in the U.S., U.K., Ireland, India and elsewhere.
In the statement, titled “An Open Letter from the CEO of Stolichnaya Vodka to the LGBT community,” Mendeleev writes:
“The recent dreadul actions taken by the Russian Government limiting the rights of the LGBT community and the passionate reaction of the community have prompted me to write this letter to you.
“I want to stress that Stoli firmly opposes such attitudes and actions. Indeed, as a company that encourages transparancy and fairness, we are upset and angry. Stolichnaya Vodka has always been, and continues to be a fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community…In the U.S., the brand’s commitment to the LGBT community has been ongoing for years…Stoli is very proud of its current exclusive national partnership with Gaycities.com and Queerty.com in search of the Most Original Stoli Guy…Previous national initiatives included serving as the official vodka of the Miami Gay Pride Week as well as ongoing events with focus on Pride Month.
“This letter also gives me the opportunity to clear some of the confusion surrounding the Stolichnaya brand, based on facts found online that often inaccurately link our company to the Russian Government. The Russian government has no ownership interest or control over the Stoli brand that is privately owned by SPI Group, headquartered in Luxembourg in the heart of Western Europe.
“We fully support and endorse your objectives to fight against prejudice in Russia. In the past decade, SPI has been actively advocating in favor of freedom, tolerance and openness in society…and will continue to support any effective initiative in that direction.”
Jon Deitelbaum, who with his spouse Brandis Deitelbaum founded Toast Spirits and recently launched Yacht Club vodka (an American / French product), noted that a boycott of Russian vodkas might miss its mark. “Personally, we have always been about love fueling life,” he wrote in an email to the Drinks Examiner. “We have always been involved in the LGBT community in some way with our businesses and brands. Professionally, we have always felt that the policies of governments do not always represent the views and opinions of citizens and the businesses in those countries…As manufacturers, we would not want our products to be judged by consumers based on national politics, rather on the quality of our brands.”
Deitelbaum notes that employees in Russia and the U.S. might be impacted by the drop in business and that bars and liquor stores where Russian vodkas are sold would have purchased their inventory weeks or months ago from American distributors. “A boycott of vodka is not as likely to have the same effect as President Obama could by not going to Russia for a summit to show our country does not support this discrimination. This is a very emotional issue. Rightfully, I fully understand how consumers, both gay and straight, feel like this is a message they can personally send back to Russia. Unlike the U.S., Russians do not have a phone line to their local congressman or senator, so the boycott really only impacts the people who work for these companies in the U.S.”
It is not clear how widespread the boycott is yet among gay rights advocates, but the online buzz is increasing rapidly. A personal post by this author on his Facebook page elicited some responses that suggested several people were supporting the ban. In addition, many commenters suggested they rarely drink vodka these days, opting instead for gin, tequila, whiskey, “or beer.”
It is also unclear how many bars in the U.S. might be affected by the boycott. Apart from Russian Standard (and the often-thought-to-be-Russian Stoli), it is rare to see Russian vodkas behind most American bars. Chopin is from Poland, Van Gogh from Holland, and Ciroq from France. Examiner will continue to update the story as new information arrives.
Thirsty for more? Check out National Spirits Examiner or NY Drinks Examiner.
Do you have a cocktail trend, new product, bar or teahouse you’d like me to review? Want to give me a heads-up on your favorite hot spot? Please email me at NYDrinksExaminer AT gmail.com. Or follow me on Twitter @roberthp.
FTC Disclaimer: The author sometimes receives product samples for review, which carry no cash value and cannot be re-sold, and sometimes attends press events such as lunches or cocktail parties, designed to promote a given product. The author is not paid by any alcohol manufacturer, retailer or distributor, or provided compensation apart from revenue from an assigning publishing company for editorial publication. Opinions are the author’s own. By the way, you should be 21 or older to read this page. Author received no comps or samples in relation to this article.