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Cold War on the Rocks: Tensions with Russia Reach the Liquor Cabinet

Josh Herr
Cold War on the Rocks: Tensions with Russia Reach the Liquor Cabinet

Tensions between Russia and the West reached a new milestone Monday as Russian consumer watchdog group Rospotrebnadzor threatened a ban on the import of Kentucky Gentleman bourbon. While the agency lists potential carcinogens in the beverage as the reason for the ban, according to Dow Jones, the news agency also notes that such bans by Russian watchdog groups have “often coincided with political tensions with other nations.”

As no other nation has issued any such warning regarding the whiskey’s contents, it’s hard not to see this particular step as retaliatory.  In the past few weeks, Russia has threatened to boycott American poultry, and of course that most American of institutions: McDonald’s.

This is not the first time that Cold War has spilled out of the liquor cabinet. Last summer, in the lead up to the Sochi Olympics, American and Australian rights groups led a boycott of Smirnoff Vodka to protest the criminalization of homosexuality in Russia. This led to hundreds of gallons of perfectly decent vodka being dumped out in symbolic protest.

Related: 8 Whiskeys That Survived Prohibition

While the association between Russia and vodka is pretty well established, the link between America and bourbon should be no less obvious. Often simply lumped into the generic descriptor “whiskey,” bourbon is a specific varietal that must, by law, be produced in the United States (in the same way Scotch must be produced in Scotland). The vast majority of brands are produced in the state of Kentucky and the spirit has long been used as a symbol of the South.

There are more barrels of bourbon being aged in Kentucky than there are people in the Bluegrass State.

Vodka, while certainly associated with Russia, is also produced by respected labels in Sweden, Holland, Poland and, yes, the U.S.

Additionally, vodka has long since ceased to be made from potatoes (a few specialty brands aside). It is primarily a mix of grain alcohol and distilled water. Bourbon, in contrast, has a recipe that must be followed in order to earn the name. In addition to insisting upon American production, bourbon must be made of at least 51 percent corn, must be aged in new charred oak barrels and must be aged a minimum of two years. Imitators do exist, but whiskey aficionados accept no substitute.

It should be noted that, at present, Rospotrebnadzor has only moved against Kentucky Gentleman (distributed by Boston’s Barton 1792 Distillery) and not bourbons as a whole. It should also be noted that Kentucky Gentlemen is a lower shelf whiskey. Nevertheless, should the Russians proceed with their boycott, they will only be denying themselves one of America’s greatest products.

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