Gay Bars Join Russia Protests By Boycotting Stoli

Gay bars from West Hollywood to London are condemning Russia's anti-gay laws by shunning one of its most iconic exports: vodka. The foremost brand affected by the boycott is Stolichnaya, or Stoli. The company says it's being wrongfully targeted.

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There's an international backlash against Russia for implementing anti-gay propaganda laws. But the protests aren't in the form of mass riots. Instead, gay bar patrons and owners from West Hollywood to London are shunning one of Russia's most iconic exports, vodka. The foremost brand affected by the boycott is Stolichnaya, or Stoli. But the company says it's being wrongfully targeted. Aaron Schrank reports.

AARON SCHRANK, BYLINE: A few West Hollywood bar owners are standing curbside in front of their businesses, each gripping a 3-liter bottle of Stoli vodka. They're prepping to empty the bottles, which are actually filled with water, onto the asphalt. They're just waiting for the go ahead from City Councilman John Duran(ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: OK. This is our message to Putin and the Russian Duma that we're going to band together and boycott their products in solidarity with the gay, lesbian, bi, transgender community of Russia. So, gentlemen, please start your pouring. No more Russian vodka.

SCHRANK: This is one of many vodka-pouring protests this week, all part of the so-called Dump Stoli Campaign that author Dan Savage cooked up. It's a response to the discriminatory laws in Russia, including one that bans pro-gay public speech. Laws that activists say are fueling violet hate crimes against gay Russians. Alfredo Diaz owns Revolver Video Bar in West Hollywood. He usually order 10 grand worth of Stoli every month and says pulling it from the shelves is the right move.

ALFREDO DIAZ: Well, the reason why vodka in general was targeted - Russia - we import very little from Russia. You got your choice of caviar, vodka or fertilizer, and this is our way of generating the type of global attention that we need to focus on the mistreatment of the LGBT community.

SCHRANK: Stoli has marketed aggressively to gay consumers for years and the brand is extremely popular at gay bars across the country. Richard Grossi owns West Hollywood's Eleven Restaurant and Nightclub. He says the vodka brand is one of his top sellers.

RICHARD GROSSI: Stoli, they have a great product, a great brand, which is kind of why the boycott means something. Because we're showing that we're willing to give up something that is a very good product because we think politically we have to.

SCHRANK: But Stoli in the U.S. may be the wrong target. The Stoli within Russia is made and sold by a state-owned company but the Stoli sold in the U.S. and most other markets is the product of a different private company called SPI Group. In an open letter, SPI Group's CEO Val Mendeleev condemns Russia's anti-gay policies and touts Stoli's longstanding relationship with the gay community.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV ANNOUNCEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hello gay club TV Universe. My name is Patrick, your LGBT brand ambassador for Stolichnaya Vodka. And I'm so excited to be here tonight.

SCHRANK: The CEO is now suggesting that Stoli isn't really a Russian vodka. His company is headquartered in Luxembourg and much of the production is in Latvia. But the vodka is made with Russian ingredients. The company has a couple of distilleries in Russia and a few hundred employees. Oh, and then there's Stoli's branding.

(SOUNDBITE OF STOLI AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Stolichnaya, Russian vodka.

SCHRANK: That's an ad from 2007. Since then, the word premium has replaced Russian on Stoli labels. SPI Group has been fighting the Russian government for years over brand ownership. So the vodka makers aren't exactly on great terms with their homeland. Still, activists say Stoli's iconic connection to Russia justifies the boycott.

JOHN ARAVOSIS: Unfortunately for them they are the premier Russian brand. And right now, I got to tell you, Russia's kind of off limits. We're dealing with people's lives here.

SCHRANK: There's John Aravosis, the editor of America blog, where he's been writing about Russia's antigay climate. He says pouring kind of Russian vodka into the streets might not put much economic pressure on Russia, but that's not really the point.

ARAVOSIS: You know, initially folks were talking about a vodka boycott and now you are seeing serious concerns being raised about the safety of Olympic athletes and visitors at the Sochi Olympics in Russia in 2014.

SCHRANK: Yesterday, the Russian sports minister said foreign visitors who violate the antigay law may be arrested and deported. And the call for boycott is moving away from Russia's signature spirits and towards its Olympic Games. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Schrank.

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