When the UK announced trade restrictions on Russian imports following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, vodka was at the top of the hit list. A fiercely punitive levy of 35% was added to the cost of every bottle, effectively pricing Russian vodka out of the market. But were Northern Ireland fans of the drink (two thirds of them women and more than half under the age of 34) alarmed by the sanctions? Not a bit of it. In fact, vodka sales are booming here, with the national drink of Russia accounting for one in three of all spirit sales. And practically none of it has ever been anywhere near the place.
ne brand which actually does come from Russia that you’re likely to have spotted in off-licences and supermarkets is Russian Standard. Launched in 1998 and made in St Petersburg, it was steadily gaining in popularity here until the land that produces it decided to invade its neighbour. Other Russian-made brands you might occasionally have seen in more specialist stores include Husky, Zyr, Mamont and the pricy Beluga Gold, which sold for anything up to £150 a bottle.
Try looking for them now. They’re pretty much off the shelves everywhere in favour of other brands that might sound like they come from Putinland but are about as Russian as the Kremlin nightclub. So where, you might wonder, are our favourite vodka brands actually made? Well, here’s a quick guide to their true origins.
Smirnoff: It’s probably the most famous name in vodka, and it did originate in Moscow in 1864, but after the October Revolution in 1917, owner Vladimir Smirnov fled the country and took his spirit recipe with him. In the years that followed, production moved to a variety of locations, including, ironically, the city of Lviv in Ukraine. Today, Smirnoff is distilled by the British-based multinational Diageo in the UK, US, Ireland, Italy, Brazil and Latvia — but definitely not Russia.
Vladivar: Often cited as the UK’s second most popular vodka brand after Smirnoff, Vladivar was originally distilled in Warrington (a famous advertising campaign called it ‘Wodka from Varrington’) before the company making it was bought by whisky brand Whyte & Mackay in 1990 and production was shifted to Invergordon in Scotland.
Stolichnaya: As this column reported recently, the makers of Stolichnaya have been at pains to point out that their vodka has been made in Latvia since founder Yuri Shefler was exiled from Russia following a run-in with Putin. The drink has even been rebranded to the less Russian-sounding Stoli and a fundraising bottle in the colours of the Ukrainian flag has been produced with proceeds going to a refugee charity.
Grey Goose: Rather than coming from the home of vodka, this premium brand actually comes from the home of cognac. Created in Picardy in 1997, Grey Goose has been owned by the Bacardi brand since 2004 and is still produced in France.
Belvedere: Chosen as the ‘official vodka brand’ for the 007 movie Spectre (above), Belvedere is so proud of its Polish origins that it takes its name from Bewelder, the presidential palace in Warsaw, and even has a drawing of the building on its label.
Huzzar: This one doesn’t have to travel too far to get to shops here. It’s produced by Irish Distillers, part of the giant Pernod Ricard group, at its distillery in Midleton, Co Cork. The spirit was launched on the Irish market in 1969.
Absolut: For almost 100 years, Absolut was owned by the Swedish state in an effort to keep a tight grip on spirit consumption. The modern export version was created in 1979 and snapped up in 2008 by the Pernod Ricard group for a staggering €5.6bn. Still operating solely from the southern Swedish province of Skane, the Absolut plant turns out 11m cases of the spirit every year.
Glen’s: Distilled in Ayrshire for more than 20 years, this budget brand is one of Scotland’s most popular vodkas and is also widely available here. Produced by the Loch Lomond group, it was originally named Grant’s Vodka, until a court challenge by Glenfiddich distillers William Grant & Sons forced a name change.
Finlandia: Actually, you can probably guess where this one comes from.
And if you want to try some vodka from beleaguered Ukraine, try looking for brands such as Nemiroff, Khor, Pristine or Dima’s. They can be pretty hard to find but a specialist shop or online retailer may have a bottle or two.
Alternatively, you can stick with homegrown craft versions, such as Belfast Vodka, Ruby Blue from Moira, Mourne Dew’s Premium Irish Vodka, Boatyard Vodka from Fermanagh, Feckin Vodka from the Ards Peninsula or Titanic Distillers’ recently launched premium vodka — all of them great products that enable you to say ‘nyet’ to Russia’s favourite spirit while their tanks are still rolling through Ukraine.
*Budmo is Ukrainian for cheers, which I’m told roughly translates as ‘let us be’.