Russia Ponders Ways to Protect, Promote Vodka

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Sales of beer and wine are skyrocketing in Moscow, but it is still hard to imagine any social gathering that is not lubricated by vodka. The government says alcohol consumption in Russia has almost tripled since the end of communism.

That trend is borne out by store shelves that teem with an explosion of new vodkas. "Drinking is Russia's delight," said an 11th-century chronicle of Russian history.

At a downtown restaurant, Yuri Yermoshin says you can't toast without vodka — and that it's best drunk in shots, ice cold and accompanied by pickles and pierogy meat pies.

Russkii Standart, or Russian Standard vodka, has 60 percent the of so-called premium vodka market. It was launched in 1998 by the flamboyant billionaire Roustam Tariko, who is now exporting it to the United States.

"It's very successful product in my country, and Russians love it," Tariko said, "and Americans should just trust Russian taste, you know."

Still, Russian vodka sales abroad are a tiny fraction of those of Smirnoff, Absolut and other vodkas produced in the West. Vodka historian Alexander Nikishin believes that's a mistake.

"Russia invented a major product that's drunk all over the world. But we haven't marketed it properly," Nikishin said. "We should trademark the name 'vodka,' like the French region of Champagne."

But the claim that vodka first appeared in Russia is hotly debated, especially by people in Poland, who say their ancestors invented it. Most Western experts believe the drink first appeared somewhere in Eastern Europe as knowledge of distillation spread there from the West.

At Russkii Standart's new facility near St. Petersburg, vodka is made from almost pure spirit filtered through charcoal, which the producers say is what gives the drink its characteristics. The process for making Russian vodka today was developed more than a century ago, by Dmitri Mendeleev, the chemist who also devised the periodic chart of the elements.

"Vodka has to have an unpleasant taste, an unpleasant odor — like it's always had," Nikishin, said. "But if you drink it with the right food, it provides its own unique satisfaction. The Russian standard is the standard for vodka."

The Russian government is now considering returning to a state monopoly on spirit production that existed under the tsars and the Soviet Union.

That would provide a source of income — and help crack down against the pervasive manufacture of counterfeit vodkas, which are sometimes made from industrial solvents. Such knock-offs are said to be responsible for up to 40,000 deaths a year.

"Vodka is both a gift and a curse, depending on how you control it," Nikishin said. "If it's sold cheaply, many people drink it. But if you make it expensive and difficult to buy, they'll drink all sorts of rotten substitutes."

One thing seems clear: a visit to any Moscow bar is enough to confirm that whoever produces vodka in the future, there is no sign its popularity is going to tank anytime soon.

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