A vodka boycott on the rocks

Manisha Krishnan explains why the #DumpStoli campaign is hard to swallow

Pop quiz. How many of the following vodkas are 100 per cent Russian? Stolichnaya, Smirnoff, Russian Standard.

If you guessed one (Russian Standard), you’d be correct. Smirnoff is actually from the U.K. And Stoli is produced in Latvia, while its parent company, SPI Group, is headquartered in Luxembourg.

None of this has stopped bars from Vancouver to Chicago from boycotting Stoli in protest of homophobic laws adopted by the Russian government. The regulations ban “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations,” making it illegal to openly display homosexuality or fight for gay rights.

Some North Americans have called for a boycott of the Sochi 2014 Olympics. Dan Savage, a Seattle-based sex columnist and LGBT activist, has suggested we focus instead on “Russian” vodka.

“Do not drink Russian vodka,” wrote Savage on his blog, The Stranger. “Ask your bartender at your favorite bar—gay or otherwise—to DUMP STOLI and DUMP RUSSIAN VODKA.”

Russia’s gag laws are reprehensible and should be repealed, yet it’s hard to see how it will help to single out a company that has no ties to the government but plenty with the global gay community.

But Savage’s soapbox is second to none. The #DumpStoli campaign went viral, prompting a response from Val Mendeleev. The CEO of the SPI Group slammed the Russian government for its “dreadful actions” and outlined his company’s support of the LGBT community and its sponsorship of a documentary series on the plight of gay Americans.

He used two paragraphs to clarify that Stoli is privately owned — its vodka is produced in Latvia with Russian ingredients. “We fully support and endorse your objectives to fight against prejudice in Russia,” he said.

Savage’s response: not good enough. The company, he argued, hasn’t actively promoted gay rights in Russia and its owner is one of the richest men in that country. OK. But plenty of wealthy corporations have yet to lift a finger to forward the gay rights movement. Should we boycott them all?

Vancouver’s Fountainhead Pub has announced it will no longer serve Stoli or any other products from Russia. “We hope the Russian government sees its error and swiftly corrects its decision,” reads the bar’s Facebook page.

Sidetrack, a popular gay haunt in Chicago, and nightclubs in West Hollywood have followed suit.

My Friday-afternoon survey of bars in Toronto — a city that hosts one of the world’s largest Pride parades — found bar owners and patrons mostly ambivalent.

“Everyone really jumped on the bandwagon without checking the facts,” said Dean Orico, general manager of Woody’s in Toronto’s Boystown. Orico suggested a better idea would be to donate directly to LGBT organizations in Russia.

The one bright side to the “unfair boycott,” he said, is that people are talking about the oppression.

Just down the street from Woody’s, bar patron Brad Fulton served up a likely explanation as to why so many have impulsively endorsed the boycott. “It just makes us feel good,” he said.