Bottoms UP

Gay Bar Lifts Ban On Stoli Vodka, Boycott Ends

stoli175_wdrink_new__44351__01694.1358534178.1280.1280Patrons of Chicago’s Sidetracks bar can once again toast “Vashe Zdorovie!,” Russian for “Bottoms up!” with a Stoli Vodka cocktail. Following a $300, 000 donation to the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and a $150,000 pledge to the Russia Freedom Fund, a gay rights group, by SPI Group–the company that sells Stolichnaya Premium Vodka–the owners of the popular club called a halt to a ban on the brand.
Stoli Vodka had been the subject of a boycott by several bars, under pressure from activists last year, after it was erroneously associated with the authoritarian, virulently antigay Russian regime. Stoli is Russian in name (and potato) only. The U.S.-based, Lavtian-produced Stoli Vodka has long been a proponent of LGBT equality, and a popular pour in dozens of gay bars. (Full disclosure: SPI is a sponsor of GayCities, Inc., and the companies partnered on the Most Original Stoli Guy program.)
“For many months, we have been working closely with our friends in the
LGBT community to identify ways of placing resources where we can help
make a difference in people’s lives,” John Esposito, President of Stoli Group USA, said in an email to Queerty. “Through our network we were lucky enough to be introduced to the Russia Freedom Fund which will directly help LGBT activists on the ground in Russia. Over the next two years, we hope our donation of $150K will help stimulate positive, lasting change for LGBT people living in Russia. We continue to stand with the worldwide LGBT community against their discrimination and their pursuit of justice and equality.”
“We are really delighted to work with Stoli on this very important solidarity fund for the Russian LGBT movement,” Julie Dorf of The Russia Freedom Fund told Queerty. “The crisis grows over there every day and American solidarity should naturally extend financially. I’d like to see more companies and more individuals putting their money where there mouths are as the Olympic Games open tonight and we see scores of activists detained by Russian police for speaking their minds about Putin’s anti-LGBT crackdown.”
Dorf characterized the boycott as effective despite the fact that the U.S.-based, Latvian-produced vodka company has no association with Russia and its draconian antigay policies. “The boycott got our community talking about and mobilized around the crisis in Russia that has continued to this day,” she insisted. “Stoli-USA has been an accessible dialogue partner throughout the boycott, and now have become a firm supporter of the Russian LGBT movement. I’d call this a very successful community response.”
At the same time, many bar owners and patrons, fans of the vodka, felt the boycott was misguided from the beginning.
Many opposed the protest last July when Queerty published a letter to the LGBT community from Val Mendeleev, CEO of SPI, that explained the company’s position and maintained that company officials “fully support and endorse your objectives to fight against prejudice in Russia.” The letter clarified widespread misconception about the company’s origins. As Mendeleev explained, “While we are proud of our Russian heritage, we are not a Russian State-owned brand nor do we support their laws and actions against the LGBT community there.”

Activist/sex columnist Dan Savage helped initiate the DumpStoliVodka campaign last summer. Now he has reversed course. “The important thing is to help Russian gays and lesbians who are being persecuted in Russia right now,” Savage said in a statement. “Sending 100% of funds raised to organizations working in Russia is the right thing to do, that’s why I’m supporting the Russia Freedom Fund.”

Tonight LGBT bars across the country will participate in a nationwide  fundraising event called Uprising of Love, vowing to donate $1 for each drink sold between 9 p.m. to midnight to the Russia Freedom Fund.

So go out and raise a toast to all your brothers and sisters in Russia tonight.

“Vashe Zdorovie!”