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This week, President Biden is expected to announce bans on imports of Russian alcohol and seafood to the U.S. It’s the latest in a series of developments regarding Russian spirits surrounding the country’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
Shortly after the news broke last month, many Americans turned to vodka to vent outrage or show support. Some sought to ban Russian-made vodkas from shelves or to organize a widespread boycott of Russian brands, while others looked to purchase products made in Ukraine.
Yet, it’s been challenging for many consumers to figure out where many products are made. Some bartenders made a show of pouring Stolichnaya down the drain, unaware that the vodka they were dumping has primarily been produced in Latvia since founder Yuri Shefler fled Russia in 2000 over opposition to the Putin government. Others, like Smirnoff and Georgi, have Russian-sounding names, but are made in the U.S.
While the U.S. government has moved to ban U.S. imports of key Russian products, including vodka, the question remains: Why is there so much confusion around where vodka is made?
Marketing can misdirect
Marketing has long been a cornerstone of the distilled spirits industry, and vodka in particular (see: the Moscow Mule, which has nothing to do with Moscow).
All spirits sold in the U.S. are required by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to state on the label where the product is made. For spirits made outside of the U.S., that means the country of origin; for those produced within the U.S., it means the state where it was made. But that doesn’t stop producers from creating names, images or marketing materials that imply something different.
The widespread practice of contract distilling, or when one producer may distill, age and/or bottle a spirit on behalf of another, often feeds into this misperception as well.
“Distillers have been contract distilling for generations,” says Brian Facquet, founder and distiller at Do Good Spirits in Roscoe, NY, which launched Bootlegger Vodka in 2009. “How many spirits are actually made in castles? [Similarly,] if you’re branding something to be from the beautiful wheat fields of Russia [and] your advertising shows Russian heritage, how can you blame the consumer for not understanding where the vodka comes from?”