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Lesson of boycott: Don't assume vodka is Russian

  • Article by: ANDREW HIGGINS
  • New York Times
  • September 7, 2013 - 6:01 PM

– When a number of prominent Americans, outraged by what they saw as a rising tide of state-sponsored homophobia in Russia, called for a boycott of Stolichnaya vodka this summer, they had no more eager ally against Moscow than Kaspars Zalitis, a gay rights advocate in Latvia, a Baltic nation with a long and painful experience with Russia’s oppression of minorities.

Then came a surprise: Stolichnaya, Zalitis discovered, is made in the capital of Latvia, which broke free of Russian subjugation more than two decades ago.

Efforts to pressure Russia’s abstemious president, Vladimir Putin, into dropping a new law outlawing “homosexual propaganda” by getting Americans to dump vodka have provided particularly fertile ground for complaints of good intentions gone awry.

“They thought Stoli was an easy target,” said Stuart Milk, a gay activist and the nephew of Harvey Milk, the murdered California gay rights pioneer.

Stolichnaya has contributed to the confusion, for decades promoting itself as Russian vodka on the label and proclaiming itself the “mother of all vodkas from the motherland of vodka” in a 2006 advertising campaign. The Russian link was later dumped, with labels changed in 2010 to read simply “premium vodka,” but by then its Russian identity had been firmly established.

The exact nationality of Stolichnaya is hard to pin down. It was made for a time in Russia and simply bottled in Riga but has in recent years been filtered and blended in Latvia. Yet while its water comes from Latvian springs, its main ingredient, raw alcohol distilled from grain, still comes from Russia. Its bottles are from Poland and Estonia, its caps from Italy.

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