February 3, 2006
Russia Running Low on Vodka, Distiller Warns
By Christian Lowe
MOSCOW -- Russians could suffer a shortage of their national tipple next week because a bureaucratic mix-up has brought every vodka distillery in the country to a halt, producers said on Friday.
Distillers have been waiting since January 1 for tax authorities to send them new excise stamps -- the anti-counterfeit stickers that by law must be attached to every bottle of vodka.
"We are selling vodka left over from last year but those stocks are getting smaller all the time," said Vera Bragina, a spokeswoman for Russia's Smirnov Trading House.
"The situation is pretty much under control but if in the next week or so (we do not receive the stamps) then there will be problems," she added. "There is a threat (to supplies)."
Each Russian consumes 14 liters of alcohol a year -- most of it in the form of neat vodka, consumed in the traditional style by draining the glass in one gulp.
It is illegal to produce or sell vodka without an excise stamp that corresponds to the year in which it was produced.
New excise rules that came into force on January 1 led to confusion among officials about the procedure for issuing distillers with new stamps.
Because of that, no new stamps left the Federal Tax Service's warehouses until January 31 -- a month late. But by Friday some vodka producers had still not received them.
"We ... do not have the new excise stamps at the factory," said Bragina. "There is talk that maybe by Monday they will get the stamps but we have heard that before."
There have been no vodka shortages in shops because producers have used their reserves to keep them supplied.
Russian Alcohol Group, which has about 5 percent of the Russian spirits market, said one of its two factories had taken delivery of the excise stamps.
But the other, the Topaz plant near Moscow, had not received the stamps, said group spokeswoman Zhanna Oleinik. "At Topaz we have almost nothing left in terms of spirits. On Wednesday we expect to run out. The warehouse will be empty," she said.
Russia's state-owned vodka conglomerate Rosspirtprom said some -- though not all -- of the more than 100 factories under its control had received the excise stamps.
"We hope that by the start of next week the situation will be back to normal," said spokesman Dmitry Dobrov.
Alcohol has been a central part of Russian culture for centuries. Legend has it that 11th century Russian ruler Vladimir said: "Russia's mirth is drinking. We cannot live without it."
When former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev introduced strict limits on vodka sales in the 1980s to combat rampant alcoholism, some people turned to drinking eau de cologne.
Smirnov vodka has no connection to the Smirnoff brand owned by drinks giant Diageo.
(Additional reporting by Oliver Bullough and Oleg Shchedrov)