Today’s installment of Edibles & Potables is brought to you by Edwin Starr, who knew.
War, I despise
‘Cause it means destruction of innocent lives
War means tears to thousands of mother’s eyes
When their sons go off to fight
And lose their lives
Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, so did calls to boycott Russian goods. In terms of food, Russian exports to America are negligible, but bar staffers are the vanguard of consciousness, and many owners and managers began contemplating the removal of Russian vodka.
Alas, it’s not as simple as purging the “water of life” from one’s shelves, as Michael Klein of The Philadelphia Inquirer reports.
Thinking of boycotting Russian vodka? Not too many brands are actually made there.
Shawn Kelly, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB), said two brands sold on shelves of the Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores — Russian Standard and Ustianochka, both 80-proof vodkas — are actually produced in Russia.
But what about Stoli?
A Russian name does not a Russian vodka make.
Take Stoli. Though Stolichnaya is a historically Russian brand and is made at least partly from Russian wheat, almost all of the Stoli sold in the West is made in Latvia. (The former Soviet republic also happens to be a NATO member.) It’s owned by a company in Luxembourg that is controlled by Yuri Shefler, a Russian-born billionaire who left Russia during a tiff with the Kremlin.
On the one hand, Shefler certifiably is an oligarch. In the late 1990s during one of Russia’s many robber baron periods, Shefler purchased the rights to Stolichnaya for a song (albeit not Starr’s tune) and proceeded to make hundreds of millions.
However, Shefler subsequently landed on the wrong side of Vladimir Putin and left Russia, where Stolichnaya still is produced (in Samara and Kaliningrad), taking with him to Luxembourg the rights to the vodka in roughly 180 countries, and shifting production to Latvia – a former Soviet republic now belonging to both NATO and the European Union.
Good oligarch? Bad oligarch? Since Latvia is on NATO’s front line with Russia, shouldn’t we be drinking more Stoli, not less?
The global economy (I’ll refrain from using the word
neoliberalism, which borders on the obscene) makes it fiendishly difficult for ordinary people like us to follow the money, and without being able to trace its path, boycotts at the macro level are rendered largely moot.
Ironically, the global economy was supposed to make war less likely because it would bind together the peoples of the planet in enlightened self-interest (read: profit). But in the current situation, we find those nations most opposed to the Russian military action being very careful with sanctions, lest they boomerang and hurt the home front as badly as the presumed enemy.
And, assuming the owners of Ukrainian vodkas like Nemiroff and Khortysta are reputable, while it might make sense to encourage their purchase as a way of showing solidarity, the sad reality of upselling Ukrainian vodka is the potential for a very short shelf life should the distilleries and supply lines fall victim to the violence and destruction.
Of far greater concern is the future disposition of Ukrainian wheat; not only does it go to create vodka, but it feeds people.
Last evening at the Louisville Service Industry page at Facebook, the topic of a boycott was raised. I suggested that that if a bar wishes to be rid of Russian products already purchased, a logical course would be to sell them as part of a consciousness-raising event, then donate a percentage of the proceeds to Ukrainian relief, seeing as it would help no one to pour them down the drain.
In agreement, Jason Smith at Against the Grain replied, adding that it’s “doubtful anyone really has true Russian products and should do some research before throwing their Stoli in the street!”
He’s right, and for most of us, finding a way to shift our consumer preferences to impact the specificity of this ongoing conflict is at best a needle-in-the-haystack proposition, not only for the reasons explored in the preceding, but also because Russians themselves are in the street protesting the actions of their own government. How do we help them?
It’s a sticky wicket, indeed, and there are no simple answers. The only thing I know with absolute certainty is that Edwin Starr was right.
It ain’t nothing but a heart-breaker
(War) Friend only to The Undertaker
Oh, war it’s an enemy to all mankind
The thought of war blows my mind
War has caused unrest
Within the younger generation
Induction then destruction
Who wants to die?