Vodka from Moscow – Russian Vodkas
The Moscow Standard
The advent of a market economy in Russia had the effect, of inspiring a new aggressiveness among vodka producers.
Most production is in the hands of a group belonging to the state, with distilleries not only in Moscow but also in other cities like Saint Petersburg, Samara, Irkutsk, Kaliningrad, Kaluga, and Kursk. Vodka exports are handled by a national agency, SoIouzplodoimport, which manages a large number of brands and has signed distribution contracts with European and American companies. Not long ago, independent distillers like Dovgan also began to appear.
Now that Soviet protectionism has ended, Russian producers are confronted with competition on two fronts.
On the one hand, foreign producers are flooding the Russian market. The authorities estimated in 1994 that 60 percent of the spirits consumed in Russia were imported. And, in 1995, at least 140 foreign brands of vodka were on sale in Moscow.
On the other hand, in foreign markets, Russian vodkas have been supplanted by many producers claiming Russian origin — or at least a semblance of it. In many cases, they don’t even have to make the pretence in order to attract customers (the Scandinavians provide one example).
The Russians had begun their offensive by affirming the particularity of their vodkas, especially the higher-quality ones. Made primarily from rye, they benefit from the soft waters of the Moscow region, especially the water from the Mytishchi springs, located twenty kilometres from the capital. The producers stress the fact that this water is never distilled or boiled, but simply filtered, either naturally or through membranes. Distillation is done fairly slowly in stages to allow the maximum extraction of the raw materials’ flavours. Finally, the Russians mix the alcohol with water to reach an alcohol concentration of forty degrees in weight. They claim that other vodka makers dilute their vodka with an equal amount of water.
This Muscovite standard of quality, called moskovskaia ossobia, or Muscovite special, is based on the work of Mendeleyev and has been described in a book by William Pokhlebkin, A History of Vodka, published in London in 1992.
It provides a basis for Russian producers’ claim in their advertising campaigns that “only Russian vodka is real vodka”. They insist that other vodkas do not attain the same level of quality and even contain impurities that are dangerous to the drinker’s health. Russian ad campaigns criticize “false” vodkas from Belorussia, Ukraine, Western Europe, the Czech Republic, and even China. One Chinese brand, Langow, is treated as a poison because it contains twenty times the amount of aldehydes, five hundred times the amount of empyromatic oils and ten times the amount of complex ethers than is called for by current standards.
The consumer is even cautioned against so-called false vodkas bearing the labels of popular Russian brands. A brochure explains that “it should be verified that the mark on the ground-glass stopper corresponds to that on the bottle’s label. It should be verified that theis evenly distributed around the label, although hand-glued labels are all different. The code number should have between seven and ten digits. The ground-glass stopper on a factory-made bottle should not turn around its axis; it would have been rejected at the factory if it did”.
On foreign markets, Russian producers quickly understood the rules of competition, as is shown by the agreement concluded in 1995 with the British group IDV for the development of Soiouzplodoimport’s leading brand, Stolichnaya. IDV already owns Smirnoff, the world’s best-selling brand of vodka, but in 1994 it lost the distribution rights to Absolut on the American market, where it is highly successful. A little earlier, in 1991, Boris Smirnov, the great-grandson of the founder of the renowned Smirnoff brand, started producing vodka under his own name, with a red label and bearing the coat of arms of his grandfather. He even obtained the approval of the Russian licensing administration a few days before the Heublein group (a subsidiary of IDV) received approval for the Smirnoff brand, which it has owned since 1938 and distributes in nearly 140 countries. Smirnoff, which until then had only been distributed in stores reserved for foreigners, obviously had a great potential for growth in Russia.
There followed a series of trials, thundering pronouncements to the press, offers of friendly arrangements that were later denounced as corrupt, and so on. What was at stake in this battle, which mobilized many international lawyers, was not so much the domination of a market (Boris Smirnov hardly had the same means of production as the giant Smirnoff) as discovering whether Russia would accept international legislation on brand names or whether a brand like Smirnoff belonged to everyone in the end.
On average, each Russian drinks 14.5 litres of pure alcohol per year, or the equivalent of 170 half-litre bottles. Other alcoholic beverages are included, of course, but vodka takes the lion’s share, making Russia one of the leading world markets. That is enough to whet plenty of commercial appetites and to increase the worries of Russian producers confronted with the ambitions of multinational competitors.
Russian Posters for an anti-alcoholism campaign. The slogans say it all –
Fig 1 – “His outlook on the world”
Fig 2 – “This isn’t bravery, it’s pure lunacy”.