A number of Atlanta bars are joining a national campaign boycotting Stoli in response to Russia’s discriminatory laws against the LGBT community, popularized through the #dumpstoli hashtag on Twitter.
The national campaign got into swing when writer and activist Dan Savage wrote an op-ed in The Stranger on July 24 on why he was personally choosing to boycott Russian vodka. While Savage named a number of Russian vodkas in his piece, he made sure to highlight two of the biggest names: Russian Standard and Stoli, a.k.a. Stolichnaya.
So why has Stoli become the primary object of this boycott? Being among the most well-known of Russian vodkas doesn’t help. Even though Stoli and its owner have said that they support LGBT rights and even recently amended their non-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation, many boycotters feel the move was simply motivated by an attempt to protect sales.
Opponents of the boycott are quick to mention several facts that they say make the boycott misguided. Chief among them: the version of Stoli found in the U.S. isn’t Russian. Stoli is, instead, distilled in Latvia and distributed in the United States through William Grant & Sons USA, a subsidiary of a Scottish brand. Stoli’s owner, SPI Group, is based out of Luxembourg; the head of the company, Yuri Scheffler, is a Russian billionaire no longer living in Russia.
What boycott opponents fail to mention is Stoli’s efforts in the past to claim their ties to Russia, including use of 100% Russian ingredients and statements in PR documents such as this: “The part ‘Russia’ plays is an essential element in our brand education. It’s where the brand was born and where our grain comes from today.”
Here in Atlanta, the boycott started a little early. On June 15, the Atlanta Eagle became the first bar to dump Stoli. Co-owner Robby Kelley made the announcement via Facebook:
“So I came to a conclusion about [S]toli and other Russian made vodka. (I know [S]toli is not made in Russia but the profits made from it goes there.) [T]he Atlanta Eagle will no longer carry these vodkas. When we are out, we are out. I’m a small bar but [feel] like its my job [not] to support a vodka or product from a country that just removed the rights of the [LGBT] community for the next 100 years.”
Blake’s on the Park became the second Atlanta bar to ban Stoli, beginning on July 31. Through a post on the bar’s Facebook page:
“We live in a country that’s moving in the direction of banning laws that discriminate against and exclude our gay citizens. We’ve come a long way and we need to continue making strides toward equality. As U.S. citizens, we enjoy luxuries that other people in other parts of the world do not have.
“Led by President Putin, who is looking more like a modern day ‘Fuhrer,’ the Russian Government recently set back the chance for equality of the LGBT community in Russia to the days of Joseph Stalin.
“[…] As a result, Blake’s on the Park will no longer be serving Russian owned, Stolichnaya vodka. While our refusal to serve Stoli in itself is not necessarily a grand gesture likely to bring about reform, this act may prove effective in helping to at least begin to stir the winds of change.”
Amsterdam joined the ban on August 4 through a photo stating: “Solidarity. Proudly Not Serving Stolichnaya.” At press time, Swinging Richards became the fourth bar to join in. In a statement to Project Q Atlanta, general manager Matt Colunga said, “Is us dropping Stoli going to make Russia change their mind? No. But we are making a statement.”
At least one bar owner thinks the boycott is misguided, though. In an interview with GA Voice, Richard Cherskov of Jungle made the following statement:
“I think this Stoli boycott is misplaced. Stoli has been a supporter of the community (at least in America) and this boycott will hurt Americans (i.e. local distributors, etc.) more than it help[s] this cause in Russia.
“So for now we are not making any changes. I think this is akin to the ‘boycott Florida’ thing over the Zimmerman case – people want something to lash out against, but perhaps are doing so against the wrong target.”
Cherskov’s perspective is gaining some popularity of its own. Other opponents of Russia’s draconian laws have pushed for other forms of boycott, from calls to not attend the winter Olympic games in Sochi this February to calls for moving the Miss Universe pageant away from its scheduled location in Moscow on November 9. The debate serves to remind everyone of one thing: there’s no simple solution to helping Russia’s LGBT population, but efforts still need to be made.