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Smirnoff and Smirnov battle it out in Russia's vodka wars

Smirnoff and Smirnov
   Smirnoff and Smirnov
November 28, 1997
Web posted at: 4:48 a.m. EST (0948 GMT)

From Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty

ST.PETERSBURG, Russia (CNN) -- To some, it might be a question of spelling. To Russians, it's Smirnoff vs. Smirnov.

The U.S.-based distiller Heublein manufactures Smirnoff, and sells its vodka in 142 countries worldwide.

Smirnov, meanwhile, is made in Russia by a company called "The Trading House of the Heirs of the P.A. Smirnov."

The companies are locked in a five-year legal battle over the right to use the renowned name of the czarist-era Pyotr Smirnov in their trademarks.

Boris Smirnov, Pyotr's great-grandson, heads the modern-day Russian company. He contends the American Smirnoff is "just a bunch of letters."

"First of all, Russia is the motherland of all vodka. Second, we use the real Smirnov recipe, which is very important, to refine vodka in the Russian way with Russian technology," he says. "And of course, you need a Russian soul to make Russian vodka."

Boris Smirnov started his company only six years ago. Last year, he moved his operation to a factory outside of Moscow.

Business, he says, is booming. A year ago, the factory produced 200,000 bottles per month. This year, production jumped to 2.5 million a month.

Heublein, meanwhile, has been producing vodka since the 1930s. The U.S. company says it bought the Smirnoff name from a businessman who obtained the rights from the founder's son. Although most of its vodka is made in Connecticut, it also uses a Russian factory in St. Petersburg.

The Russian Smirnov won the first legal skirmishes. Heublein was barred from importing and selling its vodka in Russia.

Heublein, however, appealed the decision, and it has never gone into effect. Now the Russian supreme court is considering the matter. Until it is settled, each company is trying to persuade the Russian consumer that it is the real thing.

The U.S. Smirnoff is advertising its "Russian character," while the Russian Smirnov claims that Russians can "taste" the difference.

Russians, for one, seem undecided. One consumer praises Smirnov for being "homemade," while another claims Smirnoff tastes better.

As the Russian say, "To each according to his own taste."


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