Growing list of Chicago gay bars drop Russian vodkas amid antigay laws

Click to enlarge. Roscoe's Tavern in Boystown. Photo: Tony Merevick/Chicago Phoenix

Roscoe’s Tavern in Boystown. Photo: Tony Merevick/Chicago Phoenix

As antigay violence continues under a Russian government that has banned homosexuality, a number of Chicago gay bars are pulling Russian spirits from their shelves.

Five additional bars have yanked Stoli and other Russian products as of Thursday night, bringing the total to seven.

Parlour on Clark, 6341 N. Clark St. is the latest to drop Stoli, announcing the move on Facebook: “We proudly serve the vodka that supports LGBTQ communities! Halsted Vodka donates 15 percent back to our community! Stoli will no longer be stocked!”

Elixir Lounge (3452 N. Halsted St.), Halsted’s Bar and Grill (3441 N. Halsted St.), Hydrate Nightclub (3458 N. Halsted St.) and Replay Beer & Bourbon (3439 N. Halsted St.) have also joined the boycott, according to LKH Management.

“Effective immediately, we will be pulling all Russian made products from the shelves at all of our establishments,” LFK said in a statement. “We have been working with our distributors over the past few weeks to identify a premium spirit produced in a country that recognizes and respects the importance and equality of every citizen of the world.”

LFK establishments will instead carry Reyka Vodka, which is produced in Iceland — the first country to elect an openly gay woman as prime minister.

“Reyka Vodka is a proud supporter of the GLBT community and we are pleased to work with a brand, which shares the same values that are so important to our company, our employees, and most importantly, our guest,” the company said. Prior to the switch, signature cocktails at Elixir Lounge were made with Russian Standard.

Sidetrack Video Bar (3349 N. Halsted), one of the nation’s largest gay bars, announced Wednesday it is dropping all Russian products from its offerings, including Stoli vodka and Russian Standard Vodka in protest of recent policies criminalizing homosexuality implemented under that nation’s president, Vladimir Putin.

The Call, 1547 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., was the first bar to join the boycott early this week when it posted an announcement reading, “The Call: Proudly serving non-Russian vodkas” with the hashtag, #NyetRussianVodka.

In late June, Putin approved the controversial ‘gay propaganda’ law, which imposes fines of up to 1 million rubles ($31,000) for promoting anything related to gay culture among minors. In recent months, clashes among LGBT protestors, Russian police and antigay demonstrators have resulted in violence and several arrests.

“The [new anitgay laws] are so destructive to the lives of gay people in Russia that we cannot support Russian products at this time,” said Sidetrack Owner Art Johnston. “The bottom line is that if it comes from Russia, we won’t carry it.”

However, some local gay bar owners are researching the connections between vodka brands associated with Russia and the Russian government before saying nyet.

Mike Sullivan, co-owner of Crew Bar & Grill and The SoFo Tap, said he is carefully considering imposing a boycott but will do more research first.

“We want to make the right decision,” Sullivan said. “We don’t want to decide without all the facts.”

Stolichnaya — or Stoli — is actually bottled in Riga, the capitol city of Latvia, according to SPI Group, the company which owns the brand. SPI is responsible for the distribution of Stoli vodka all over the world, except for Russia, where the government owns the trademark. The company does business in Russia and sources ingredients from the country.

SPI Group’s CEO, Val Mendeleev issued a statement Thursday saying the company “strongly opposes” the discriminatory laws imposed by the Russian government and sought to distance the brand from the growing backlash — not just in Chicago, but around the country led by well-known activist Dan Savage.

“Stolichnaya Vodka has always been, and continues to be, a fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community,” Medeleev said. “The Russian government has no ownership interest or control over the Stoli brand that is privately owned by SPI Group, headquartered in Luxembourg in the heart of Western Europe.”

Medeleev also noted the he and the company actually support efforts underway to expose the injustices LGBTs face in Russia, the violence there and the discriminatory laws passed by the Russian government.

“We fully support and endorse your objectives to fight against prejudice in Russia,” he said. “In the past decade, SPI has been actively advocating in favor of freedom, tolerance and openness in society, standing very passionately on the side of the LGBT community and will continue to support any effective initiative in that direction.”

[box]Read the full letter here. [/box]

While he weighs the boycott, Sullivan has suspended additional orders of Stoli for Crew and SoFo Tap and suggested that regardless of boycotts, he’s glad the community is bringing attention to the violence and injustices LGBT face in Russia every day.

“This will help put pressure on the Russian government to come back to the 21st Century,” he said.

Another local gay mainstay, Downtown Bar & Lounge at 440 N. State St. in the Loop, is also considering the boycott, but could potentially raise money for LGBT rights groups isolated in Russia, according to Brian Martin, the bar’s general manager.

“I’m almost thinking of raising the price up a dollar and putting the money toward a legal fund to support [LGBTs],” Martin said. “I’m still trying to figure out what to do with what I still have in house. Boycotting will help, but it is not enough.”

And at Roscoe’s Tavern, management said they will not take a stance on the issue — because they don’t have to. The bar, at the corner of Halsted and Roscoe streets, hasn’t carried Stoli in over 5 years, said Brenden Chrisman.

“We care about what is happening in Russia, but we don’t have to make a business decision because of it,” Chrisman said.

Like Roscoe’s, several other bars already do not carry Stoli or Russian vodkas and do not plan to do so, including Scarlet Bar (3320 N. Halsted), Spin Nightclub (800 W. Belmont Ave.) and Taverna 750 (750 W. Cornelia Ave.).

But few other local gay bars are considering dropping the popular Russian vodka.

When contacted by Chicago Phoenix, Atmosphere, Little Jim’s, The Glenwood and The Closet said Stoli remains available to patrons.

Many other bars did not return calls for comment in time for publication.

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