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March 1, 2022

Maine calls for Russian vodka boycott, with a mixer of results

Courtesy / Vinepair Russian vodka is the subject of a boycott called for by Gov. Janet Mills, but represents a small fraction of imported spirits.

Like a growing number of officials from other states, Maine Gov. Janet Mills on Monday spoke out against the Russian invasion of Ukraine and called for businesses to pull Russian-made liquor from their shelves in protest.

Some businesses are, and some aren’t.

Mills also asked the Maine Liquor and Lottery Commission to delist four brands of vodka imported from Russia, currently waging an unprovoked war on the neighboring republic of Ukraine.

By Tuesday morning, the Liquor Commission had not publicly announced a response to her request. If approved, it would eventually stop sales of Russian Standard and Hammer + Sickle, the only two Russian-made spirits sold in Maine.

The commission has the authority to determine or “list” the brands of spirits available for sale to retailers, but cannot require the products' removal. By law, liquor is sold by the state to licensed agency stores, some of whom also sell the products to restaurants and bars.

Mills said in a statement, “Maine stands in solidarity with the people of Ukraine in the face of this abhorrent, unprovoked assault on their country, their freedom, and their lives. I ask Maine people to join with me in expressing our support for Ukraine, for its people, and especially for our fellow Mainers with Ukrainian roots who are deeply worried about the safety and welfare of their loved ones right now.”

The boycott is largely symbolic. Just 1.2% of U.S. vodka imports came from Russia in the first half of 2021, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. In fact, Russian vodka represented only $18.5 million of the $1.4 billion in U.S. vodka imports last year.

Brands identified with Russia are now often produced elsewhere. They include Stolichnaya, which is made in Latvia, and Smirnoff, which is owned by a British company and produced in locations including Illinois.

Regardless of the market metrics, businesses are responding in different ways to the boycott call.

At Erik’s Church, a country-music bar in Windham, owner Kenny Cianchette posted a Facebook video of himself dumping Russian vodka into a sink.

“It isn’t much, but we won’t sell Russian vodka until further notice,” Cianchette posted.

However, RSVP Discount Beverage in Portland and several other retailers had either not made changes in their product line-ups by Tuesday morning or declined to discuss them.

And at a Portland dive bar you might think would be a hotspot for Russia-Ukraine sentiments, it’s business as usual.

There have been no protests, no boycotts and no backlash at Ruski’s Tavern, co-owner Monica Whaley told Mainebiz on Tuesday.

The name of the Danforth Street pub, she said, originated from a mash-up of monikers from two previous owners. Whaley and her husband, Josh, bought the bar in 2005. It dates to 1892, and the Whaleys decided to return to one of the earlier identities. 

“We’re more of an Irish bar, and people know what we’re all about,” she said. 

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