Bans on Russian booze are largely symbolic | News

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BOSTON — Russian-made spirits have become a target amid the growing backlash against the invasion of Ukraine, with New Hampshire and other states pulling the products from stores shelves in an effort to punish the country.

But package store owners and liquor industry officials say the gestures of solidarity with Ukrainians — while admirable — are largely symbolic, as very few vodka brands imported to the United States still produce the liquor in Russia.

At least 11 states — including New Hampshire and Vermont — have implemented the ban.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu signed an executive order Saturday requiring the state Liquor Commission to remove bottles of Russian vodka and blended spirits from state-run liquor stores.

“New Hampshire stands with the people of Ukraine in their fight for freedom,” Sununu said in a statement.

Sununu’s ban targets Russian-made or blended vodkas such as Russian Standard, Hammer and Sickle, and Stolichnaya.

But liquor industry officials were quick to point out that Stolichnaya — an iconic Russian vodka brand — is now made in Latvia, which is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The company issued a statement saying that it “stands for peace in Europe and in solidarity with the Ukrainian people.”

Another iconic vodka brand, Smirnoff, is also being misidentified as Russian in origin. While it was originally bottled in Russia, it has long been a British company and is bottled at a manufacturing plant in Illinois.

Russian-made vodka accounts for a small percentage of the estimated $7 billion in annual vodka sales, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. Less than 1% of vodka consumed in the U.S. is produced in Russia, the trade group said.

But that hasn’t stopped state leaders and even some liquor store owners from boycotting the products with public displays of Russian booze being poured down drains.

Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, posted on social media that Americans should dump out Russian vodka and “send the empty bottles to Ukraine to use for Molotov cocktails.”

In Massachusetts, lawmakers have filed a bill that would outlaw the importation or sale of any Russian products — including alcohol — in response to the invasion. The proposal could end up in a package of other legislation aimed at punishing Russia, including divestment of state pension funds from Russian companies.

Some Massachusetts package stores, like Kappy’s Fine Wine & Spirts, have already pulled Russian-made alcohol off their shelves in response to the Ukraine invasion.

Kappy’s co-owner Joe Selby said some customers asked stores to remove Russian brands, citing the Ukraine invasion, while others have urged them to keep those brands — not because they support Russia, but because they prefer them.

Because package stores make wholesale purchases in advance much of the booze being pulled off shelves has already been paid for. And many wholesalers won’t take the products back, he said, which leaves package stores holding the bag.

“We don’t have hundreds of cases of the stuff in stock, but it’s a burden,” Selby said. “We’re fortunate to be a larger operator, but if you’re a small store owner and you’ve invested money in these products you’re definitely in a tough spot.”

Overall, Selby says he believes the effort is a “worthwhile sacrifice” to show support for the Ukrainian people and opposition to the war.

“Yes, it’s a hit to local businesses to demand that people take it off the shelves,” he said. “But on the other hand, it’s a small sacrifice to make in the short term to show that we don’t support dictators who want to take over other countries.”

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com.

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