Gay pride protesters beaten by angry mobs while uncaring police look the other way; tourists being arrested for displaying anything but a fluent rejection of homosexuality; raids on gay clubs and public shaming of their patrons. The United States around the time of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, right?
No. Russia, right now in 2013. It is illegal there to support LGBT people, to profess pro-queer sympathies, or, heaven forfend, to actually be anything except completely and uncompromisingly straight. How long did you hold on to that man's hand after shaking it, Pyotr? Lyuki, naruchniki, porvanniy rot'–it's jail for you.
I think that's bullshit from a country about to host the world's athletes in Sochi, and so does Dan Savage. But boycotting Russia is not as easy as renaming freedom fries (though we'll need to come up with a similarly stupid nomenclature for Russian dressing), except for the big V–vodka. Savage has called for a boycott of all Russian vodkas. There are a thousand brands of vodka, though; how do you know which ones to pick to replace your Russian Standard?
Sure, you could stay with the tried and true: Belvedere, Ketel One for rich people, and Popov for 18-year-olds who have to settle for whatever they can get. Or you could realize that sometimes the fancy bottle costs more than the liquid inside, and try one of the following vodkas from countries that don't criminalize being gay in public.
Two notes before the list: First, Stolichnaya has released a letter from their headquarters in Luxembourg stating that they oppose the Russian government's actions and restating their commitment to the LGBT community; use your own judgment. Second, the prices listed are the cost of a fifth (750 mL) at Hi-Time Wine, Orange County's best liquor store. Prices and availability may vary.
1. Reyka (Iceland, $18.99)
Reyka is the perfect replacement for Russian Standard: it's made in a similar way, it's got the same clean nose followed by a slightly ester-y finish, it's got an identical burn. It's the same price as Russian Standard, and it's made in a country that's a lot queer-friendlier than Russia.
2. Tito's (USA, $16.98)
Tito's is the best value on the vodka shelf these days. It's a grain vodka that manages to feel a little bit more robust than most grain vodkas. It's distilled 6 times, so there's really no trace left of the grain. This is your vodka for all those Moscow Mules you want to make. And while it's made in gay-unfriendly Texas, at least you won't be arrested if you drink a little too much and make a pass at the bartender.
3. Death's Door (USA, $33.99)
Death's Door is more famous for their outstanding New American gin than for their vodka, but let's face it–gin is vodka with stuff. (Good stuff.) If you have a great gin, then you can make a great vodka, and that's exactly what they do out there in Wisconsin. Death's Door vodka is distilled three times, so it's got a little more character than other vodkas; you can drink this one straight, as you ought to for such an expensive bottle.
1. Karlsson's Gold (Sweden, $29.99)
The name of the vodka has nothing to do with the color–remember, the government says vodka is a colorless, odorless alcoholic spirit. The government, though, like most governments, is wrong. Karlsson's absolutely has a flavor to it, one that brings to mind akvavit and camping in the northern woods at midsummer. It's an expensive vodka, but it goes with absolutely everything.
2. Luksusowa (Poland, $10.99)
Pronounced look-soo-SOH-vah, this is a budget vodka that needs to be mixed with other liquids. Don't make a vodka “martini” with this, especially if your idea of that is to shake the vodka while looking at a picture of a bottle of vermouth. If you're drinking Cosmos, gimlets, or any of the thousand sweet drinks in cocktail glasses that involve schnapps or liqueurs, Luksusowa will work very nicely for you–and at eleven bucks a fifth, it won't empty your wallet.
3. Chopin (Poland, $28.99)
Chopin, on the other hand, is a luxury potato vodka; it's got the thick mouthfeel that gives away the use of potatoes with the first sip, and it's got a wonderfully long finish. This is a vodka you can drink alone, cold, with zakuski, those little bites of food that enable Russians to drink more vodka than anyone in the world.