Smirnov v Smirnoff in vodka war

MOSCOW - A bottle of alcohol by any other name but vodka is usually spurned by Russians, who will drink beer if pushed but regard anything else - including wine - as a cissy tipple, writes Peter Pringle. Market forces, however, can turn fine old traditions upside down in an instant, as any Westerner knows.

Take the increasingly bitter war over the label on Smirnoff vodka. A bottle of the spirit made by the family Smirnov in Russia is on sale in stores labelled 'Table Wine No 40'. The reason is the American distributors of Smirnoff vodka worldwide say the name belongs to them.

The old original Smirnov vodka (usually spelt in translation with a 'v' not 'ff' as in the Western brand) was produced by the family of Pyotr Arsenyevich Smirnov, and did very well until the Communists closed the company.

An American firm, Heublein Inc, took up the name and the recipe, which the company says it acquired from a Russian emigre in 1939, and started worldwide production and sales of its own 'Smirnoff' brand vodka. With the Communists gone, Boris Smirnov, head of the old Russian family and great-great-grandson of Pyotr, cranked up the old distillery and naturally wanted to use the old family name.

Heublein immediately objected, and said the name now belonged to it and so did the recipe, and neither could be used. The American company claims that it alone can produce Smirnoff vodka in Russia and has lodged a complaint with the Russian Committee on Licences and Trademarks.

Russian officials say the Smirnov clan has no legal basis to claim the trademark as its own - even if it is spelt differently in translation.

It is now up to the Council of Appeals of the Committee on Patents and Trademarks to rule on the quarrel. Undaunted, Boris Smirnov said his company, which cannot use the Smirnov name unless the committee rules in his favour, is about to produce 'Vodka No 20', a brand that was hugely popular in Russia before the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.