Vodka maker Stoli says NH ban unfairly targets them

Just days after Russian forces crossed the Ukrainian border, New Hampshire joined other states in banning the sale of “Russian-made” and “Russian-branded” spirits in liquor stores owned by in the state.

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It was a symbolic and unprecedented decision. In 1983, under a former governor named Sununu, New Hampshire temporarily banned Soviet-made spirits following the downing of a Korean Air Lines jetliner that killed 269 people.

“I don’t think removing Russian-branded spirits from New Hampshire shelves will bring Vladimir Putin to his knees,” Gov. Chris Sununu said this week. But he added that it is a small gesture the state can make to show its solidarity with Ukrainians.

But Sununu’s one-page executive decree, published on February 26does not include a definition of what constitutes “Russian-branded” liquor, prompting at least one major vodka producer, Stoli Group, to mount a public relations campaign claiming it is being unfairly penalized.

Since the early 2000s, Stoli Group, which makes Stolichnaya vodka as well as a variety of flavored spirits, has been based in Latvia. After its founding in the Soviet Union in 1938, the company’s former CEO, Yuri Shefler, moved the company out of Russia in 2000 as Putin came to power. Since then, the company has been critical of the regime, according to its current leader, and says it has no ongoing operations in Russia.

“We have indeed represented the resistance movement against Putin for more than 20 years,” Damian McKinney, current CEO of the Stoli Group, said in an interview on Wednesday morning. New Hampshire today, hosted by Chris Ryan. He took to the airwaves to make his case on the state’s decision to ban Stoli products.

According to Stoli officials, New Hampshire is the only state to have banned its spirits in response to the Russian incursion. The company said about $460,000 worth of inventory was pulled from shelves. In 2021, Stolichnaya, Stoli’s flagship vodka, was the 25th best-selling spirit in New Hampshire, with customers purchasing 15,752 cases.

“It feels a bit like friendly fire,” McKinney said.

Visitors to the Stoli Group’s website are greeted with a statement opposing Russia’s actions, as well as a link to donate to World Central Kitchen, which provides assistance to Ukrainian citizens. Blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, frame the web page.

“Not a single penny goes anywhere near Putin,” McKinney said.

He said he tried to explain the company’s history and position to the governor, including via email, but failed to make his case.

photo of a bottle of Popov Vodka

The logo used by Popov Vodka seems to show the famous onion-shaped spiers of a Russian cathedral.

When asked why the product continues to be banned in New Hampshire despite its Latvian origins, Sununu pointed to the bottle itself.

“Stoli Vodka has an image of Russia on it, and it’s marked as such,” Sununu said.

The current logo for Stolichnaya unflavored vodka sold in the United States includes an artist’s rendering of a famous hotel that stood in Moscow until it was razed in 2004, according to the company. The back label alludes to the vodka’s wheat coming from Tambov, a region of Russia.

Sununu added that apart from the CEO of the company, he was not aware of any complaints about the ban.

Stoli Group announced earlier this month that given confusion over its current location, it has begun to change its name, including dropping the Stolichnaya name in favor of Stoli.

“If they want to rebrand it, and I think they’re looking to do that, I think that’s a great idea,” Sununu said.

But what is considered “Russian-branded” under the state executive order appears to remain open to interpretation. For example, the state continues to sell Popov branded vodka, which is made in the UK. The spirit logo at the bottom of the shelf prominently features an image of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, with its famous onion-shaped domes. Taaka, which is made in Kentucky, also has a rendering of the famous cathedral in Red Square in its branding.

Smirnoff, the state’s ninth best-selling spirit in 2021, is produced in multiple locations around the world. On its back logo, the brand announces that it has traveled “from Russia to Poland, from Paris to America”. But despite this reference, it remains on the shelves of New Hampshire liquor stores.

The Liquor Commission did not respond to a request for an explanation why these products remain on sale, while Stoli vodkas are shelved.

Other vodkas currently banned are Russian Standard, Hammer & Sickle Vodka, Imperia Russian Vodka, Polugar Rye & Wheat, Aviator Vodka, Kutskova Vodka and Moskovskaya Vodka.

Virginia C. Taylor