What the useless ban on importing Russian vodka tells us about our love of feckless rhetoric and symbolism

by Bob Schwartz


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is shifting vodka sales in the U.S., despite the fact that little Russian-made vodka is actually sold outside of Russia.

Some stores or consumers have been dumping brands with Russian-sounding names. But only around 14% of global vodka volume is produced in Russia, and almost all of that is sold in Russia, according to market-research firm IWSR. Worldwide vodka sales totaled $75.7 billion in 2020, according to GlobalData, another research firm.

“Many vodka brands that trace their origin to Russia are actually no longer produced in Russia, so boycotts of those brands do very little to impact Russian businesses,” said Brandy Rand, chief operating officer of the Americas at IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. “In 2020, less than 1% of vodka volume in the U.S. was from brands produced in Russia.”

Every little bit of sanction pain counts. Millions here, millions there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money…and discomfort.

Regarding Ukraine, though, we remain caught in a web of rhetoric, symbolism and virtue that makes us feel better, demonstrates spiritual solidarity, but may accomplish little. Not that avoiding and banning Russian vodka is not something, but given how little Russian vodka we actually buy and consume, it is mostly a big “so what.”

In Ukraine, whether it is the symbol of banning vodka or the real effect of not establishing a no-fly zone, we have to be brutally honest about the impact and consequences of our choices. Because Russia will be brutally dishonest about everything.