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Across the Former Soviet Union in Russia, the Land of Vodka, Kosher Brand Helps Quench Thirst


Vodka has long been a cornerstone of Russia’s identity.

Now a product called Yevreskaya Vodka — or Jewish Vodka — is succeeding with Russians by emphasizing Jewish religion and culture.

Yevreskaya sells in Moscow at about $2 for a pint — a medium-priced vodka by local standards.

The Urozhai distillery, located in a village five miles outside of Moscow, first put Yevreskaya on the market six years ago.

Sales have been brisk since then, distillery managers say.

“This is one of our most popular brands,” says Valery Gorbatenkov, brand director of the distillery. Urozhai also makes cheaper brands and some premium vodkas that compete for the high end of the Russian market.

Yevreskaya is the distillery’s only brand produced under rabbinical supervision. There are several other kosher vodkas produced by a distillery in Birobidzhan — which Stalin declared an autonomous Jewish region in 1934 — but none sell as well as Yevreskaya.

In fact, most rabbis agree that all unflavored vodkas are kosher.

“People like to buy kosher vodka, though many people would buy vodka without kosher supervision,” says Moscow’s chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, who issues kosher certification for Yevreskaya.

The most popular unflavored brands of Russian vodka — such as Stolichnaya or Kristal — are kosher, although they are not marked as such when sold domestically. The bottles produced for the North American market feature the Orthodox Union’s kosher certification stamps.

Yevreskaya features its rabbinical approval and “Jewish content” as part of its marketing strategy.

The words “Jewish” and “kosher” are the central elements of the bottle’s design.

The black labels are laden with Jewish symbols and imagery — Hebrew letters, a menorah, a photo of the interior of the Moscow Choral Synagogue and another photo of an Orthodox rabbi and a Jew in a white yarmulke standing next to the portrait of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Gorbatenkov says the distillery is not concerned by statistics, provided by Russian rabbis, suggesting that only about 5 percent of Russian Jews are believed to keep kosher.

“We market this vodka to a broader group of customers, not necessarily Jewish,” says Gorbatenkov.

Few people in Russia know what the word “kosher” means, but many are aware it has something to do with the Jewish culture and tradition.

“They trust this product because kosher certification stands for the product purity, high quality and its compliance with the centuries-old Jewish tradition,” Gorbatenkov says.

However, some shoppers may be buying Yevreskaya for more practical reasons.

Galina Belyaeva, a pensioner, was shopping recently for New Year’s gifts at the Novoarbatsky supermarket in downtown Moscow.

She selected a hair dryer for her daughter, a small Lego set for her 6-year-old grandson and a bottle of Yevreskaya for her son-in-law, the only Jewish member of the family.

“He doesn’t drink much — a drink or two on holidays — but I’m sure he’ll like the gift,” she says. “He is Jewish — so I guess this is his vodka.”

Gera Benkovich, a Moscow businessman, credits himself with the idea that launched Yevreskaya.

A few years ago, he noticed that a guest at a party he was attending, an Orthodox rabbi, didn’t drink the vodka that was being served.

“I realized that some Jews just wouldn’t touch a product if it has no rabbinical supervision,” Benkovich says.

So he suggested the idea of a kosher brand to a Jewish friend, Yuri Manilov, president of the Urozhai distillery.

Like all traditional unflavored brands, Yevreskaya is made from grain spirits and spring water.

At the traditional 40 percent alcohol, it is mellower that some other brands in its category, the distillery workers say, because of one ingredient not found in most other vodkas: dry bread extract — kosher, of course — purchased through a Moscow synagogue.

On a recent weekday, it is empty and quiet inside the distillery production facilities — several two-story buildings behind a concrete fence. Only a strong smell in some of the distillery’s shops reminds a visitor of the product made inside.

Gorbatenkov proudly points to dozens of huge tanks that contain up to 1 million quarts of grain spirit ready to be distilled into vodka — kosher and regular.

“Many people believe that vodka is a basic drink, very easy to produce,” he says. “This isn’t so, and we put much technological efforts and innovation into the production cycle.”

Yevreskaya is part of a kosher industry in Russia that is still going through some growing pains.

Kosher production in Russia has just recently began, Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, said in a recent interview.

Most of the kosher products sold at Russian stores are not marked as such, so kosher-conscious customers have to rely on information provided by Jewish organizations.

While there is growing interest in kosher certification among Russian producers, the products that carry stamps of kashrut are usually intended for export.

Baltika, Russia’s largest brewery, has recently announced it is going to receive kosher certification for some of its beers that are sold in Israel.

And Lazar has recently helped set up a company called Kosher Russia to offer kosher certificates for a variety of foods produced domestically.

While the certification is intended to satisfy the needs of Russian Jewish customers, the production of kosher vodka is really more about quenching people’s curiosity and boosting sales.

“We have noticed such an interest in our kosher production that we have started thinking about expanding this line,” Gorbatenkov says.

The distillery has recently registered its rights to a new vodka label — appropriately called L’Chaim.

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