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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Never Judge a Vodka by Its Label

At first glance, Moscow is a vodka lover's paradise: On every corner, kiosk shelves groan with old Russian standbys like Stolichnaya and Moskovskaya, classic imports like Absolut and obscure foreign labels named after everyone from Rasputin to the Terminator.

But for the polite guest who stops to buy the obligatory bottle of vodka on the way to an evening of kitchen-table toasts, that first shot may be an unpleasant surprise -- a nauseating mouthful of moonshine, a searing swallow of industrial alcohol or a weak swig hardly distinguishable from water.

A presidential commission recently estimated that of the 300 million decaliters of vodka produced in Russia last year, half were poddelki -- bathtub brews gussied up with counterfeit labels to look more or less like respectable brands.

Kristall, the granddaddy of Russian vodka factories and the most popular model for poddelki, has ordered a new weapon to stem the illicit tide: new bottles with non-reusable corks, designed to foil underground producers who bottle moonshine in used bottles of Stolichnaya and other Kristall brands, which currently have metal caps.

But the corks, whose bottoms are emblazoned with the firm's trademark, are late arriving from their secret source abroad, according to Kristall director Vladimir Yamnikov.

Even when the corks arrive, however, it is questionable whether they will solve the problem. "If you can counterfeit a $100 bill, you shouldn't have any problems counterfeiting these corks," said Yury Palmin, a self-styled expert vodka consumer.

In television ads for the German-made Rasputin vodka, a cartoon figure of the monk who wielded mysterious power over Tsar Nicholas II warns viewers, "If you don't see me" on labels "on the top and on the bottom" of the bottle, it's not Rasputin.

And during periodic city raids, harried laboratory scientists like Vera Zholudeva test up to 30 vodkas a day against government standards, which involves tasting many of them.

"You can imagine what that means for us," said Zholudeva, a doctor at Moscow's sanitary inspection agency. "One whiff is enough to make us nauseous."

But all these efforts have only made the purveyors of poddelki foxier, according to Leonid Prikhozhan, the agency's medical specialist in charge of beverage inspection.

Although he said tested vodkas failing to meet government quality standards dropped to 7 percent or 8 percent this year from 40 percent last year, he is not declaring victory.

"They are still making moonshine, but they have learned how to make it better," he said.

Russia's moonshine industry, developed during Soviet vodka shortages, exploded with the fall of the Soviet Union, according to Prikhozhan. Other substandard vodkas poured onto the market as border controls loosened and companies ranging from soft-drink makers to furniture factories received vodka production licenses, he said.

Counterfeit vodka is rarely poisonous, he said, though he has found the odd bottle filled with toxic window cleaner.

The most common shortcomings of counterfeit vodka, he said, are alcohol content below 38 percent or above 56 percent, and high levels of residual oils.

Vodka enthusiast Palmin cut through the scientific jargon, explaining, "It tastes really bad and you feel really bad the next morning."

Palmin, 28, a Moscow photographer, recounted some folk methods of telling real vodka from fake, something of a national pastime in a country that prides itself on the purity of the most Russian of drinks.

The only reliable way is by the taste, which should be, well, right.

"It's like explaining color," said Palmin.

Those who want security before digging into their pockets should look for a number beginning in 01 printed on the reverse side of the label to make sure it comes from Kristall, he said -- a method endorsed by Kristall director Yamnikov.

Tatyana Leontyeva, a spokeswoman for Rosalko, the umbrella company that unites Kristall with other well-known vodka factories across Russia, said that ironically, one route to safety is to avoid Kristall labels, since they are the most frequently copied.

Following that logic, she said, Rosalko hopes to undermine counterfeiters with "a psychological approach" by launching three new vodkas: Derzhavnaya, Molodetskaya and Charka.

"There's no point in faking them because nobody knows them yet," she said.

She also said a bottle of any Rosalko vodka, such as Moskovskaya or Stolichnaya, should cost at least 4,600 rubles (about $2.30). Anything cheaper is probably counterfeit, she said, "all the more so if it is labeled with a famous name."

Michael O'Leary, marketing manager for Mozhaisk Cash and Carry, which distributes Rasputin in Russia, said if a bottle of Rasputin costs less than 8,000 rubles, "either the product was smuggled in with total avoidance of taxes, or it is not a real product."

But the price yardstick is the one test not likely to become popular with Russian consumers.

At a kiosk near Savyolovsky Vokzal, Natasha Surai was selling what purported to be Russkaya Vodka, a Kristall brand, for 2,500 rubles in bottles with crooked labels that looked as though they had been soaked.

People rarely ask questions, she said. "They usually buy the cheapest."