To counter the persecution of gays in Russia, some in the West have been calling for a boycott of Russian vodka—the idea being that if things don't improve, we ought to hit 'em where it hurts. After all, Russians drink and make a lot of vodka and there was a time (in the mid-19th century) when close to 50 percent of tax revenue came from the neutral grain spirit. But as Mark Lawrence Schrad pointed out in yesterday's New York Times, those days are long gone. Yes, the Russians still make a considerable amount of vodka, but we here in the States don't drink much of it. And no, the Stolichnaya available here is not Russian.
According to Schrad, "the Stoli we drink is distilled in Latvia and owned by the SPI Group, based in Luxembourg, as opposed to the (cheaper, less venerated) Stoli consumed in Russia, made by a struggling state-owned company, FKP Soyuzplodoimport." Not only that, but "the Kremlin’s historic reliance on vodka revenues is largely over—making efforts to enforce the boycott ineffective and even cringeworthy. Many bars have stopped serving Smirnoff, which was produced in the United States, not Russia, as far back as the 1930s and is now made by a British conglomerate, Diageo." (Schrad is the author of the upcoming book, Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State. My own book, Vodka: An Illustrated History, is due out next spring.)
The original Smirnov vodka was absorbed by the state after the Bolshevik revolution. Vladimir Smirnov, the son of the vodka's founder, Pyotr Smirnov, escaped to France and ultimately sold the rights to his family name to Connecticut businessman Rudolph Kunett in 1934. The Smirnoff vodka of which we are all well acquainted was based in Bethel, Connecticut. Diageo's U.S. offices are in Norwalk, not far from the original factory site. The vodka itself is distilled in places like Plainfield, Illinois.
It's not the first time Smirnoff has been mistaken for a Soviet product. The invention of the Moscow Mule in the 1940s (vodka, ginger beer, lime) set off its own backlash. The cocktail was sometimes referred to as a "Commie drink," says Wayne Curtis who notes in and a Bottle of Rum that "bartenders even organized and marched in New York with placards that read 'Smirnoff Go Home. We Can Do Without the Moscow Mule.' Smirnoff reaped the free publicity, and neutered its critics by pointing out that all of its vodka was made at home of patriotic American grain."
So continue enjoying your Moscow Mules during these dog days of summer—unless of course you've got something against the Nutmeg State or the Land of Lincoln.