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?”
Vodka, the ultimate blank canvas
Vodka isn’t the only spirit to benefit from misleading marketing. But for a liquor that until 2020 was defined as “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color,” it’s often used as a blank, malleable canvas for all kinds of concepts.
“Vodka has gotten an interesting rap in the U.S.,” says Caley Shoemaker, founder and master distiller of Altar Spirits in Santa Fe, NM, which makes Ritual Vodka, and former head distiller for San Francisco-based Hangar One Vodka. “It’s defined as odorless and flavorless, and a lot of mass-produced brands lean into that.” As a result, “consumers believe all vodka is the same and doesn’t taste like anything.”
There’s considerable incentive for brands to project their chosen image onto vodka. It’s still the number-one selling spirit in the U.S., with revenues up 4.9% to $7.3 billion in 2021, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
Vodka is a broad category without regional protections
Unlike Scotch, which must be made in Scotland from malted barley, or tequila, which is required to be produced from agave in specific regions of Mexico, vodka can be made anywhere and from any raw material. Protected designations that are usually the result of international trade regulations, such as those as found with Irish whiskey, Cognac and Champagne, simply don’t exist for vodka.
“People just assume vodka comes from Russia or Poland,” says Facquet. “But does it have to? No. It makes it further confusing for a consumer.”
“Confusing” is legal, while “misleading” is not
As long as spirits brands follow the TTB requirement to label where a product is made, they are permitted to use imagery or names that subtly evoke something else, like a Russian-sounding name for a vodka that’s actually produced in Illinois. It might be an ethical gray area, but it’s legal as long as it’s not outright duplicitous.
“You can’t label products in a misleading way,” says Ryan Malkin, principal attorney for Malkin Law, which specializes in alcohol beverage law. “But I don’t think the brand name of Smirnoff, or whatever else it could be, is misleading, because there’s plenty of Russians domestically, and you also could be evoking an image or a thought in somebody’s mind, versus it suggesting that it’s actually made somewhere. That happens all the time with beer; a brand that was originally an import, and now somebody’s bought it and it’s made domestically.”
For vodka more than some other spirit categories, this puts the onus on the consumer to determine where a product is from.
“If you’re seeking to dump products that are made specifically in Russia, then you should be looking at the label and looking at the import statement with the country of origin,” says Malkin.
Published: March 14, 2022