January 9, 2003
Jewish Vodka Rocks in Russia
As Russia celebratesthe 500th year of its unofficial national beverage, 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," said 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," said Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow's chief rabbi, who issues kosher certification for Yevreskaya.
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 white 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.
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.
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 more mellow 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.
"We have noticed such an interest in our kosher production that we have started thinking about expanding this line," Gorbatenkov said.
The distillery has recently registered its rights to a new vodka label -- appropriately called L'Chaim.