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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

It's Smirnoff, by Royal Appointment

Henceforth, the London-based Pierre Smirnoff vodka company shall be known as "the official purveyor to the Imperial family" of Russia.


That was the message at a press conference held by the company and Grand Duchess Leonida Georgievna on Thursday, when they announced she would be presenting a medal similar to one granted by Nicholas II to Pyotr Smirnov 100 years ago, in 1896.


But it became immediately clear that the royal seal of approval would not help quiet the messy trademark war that Pierre Smirnoff, producer of the red and blue labeled vodka so familiar to Westerners, has been fighting with local descendants of the Smirnov family.


Boris Smirnov, descendant of Pyotr and a producer of a Russian-made "Smirnovskaya" vodka, not only reiterated his claim Thursday that the Pierre Smirnoff company is illegitimate, but said the grand name and trademark in 1939 in the United States from a Russian emigr? named Rudolph Kunett, is not the same company that received four medals from the tsar in the 1800s.


The tale is a tangled one, but the essential question in the fight between the two companies is this: Did Vladimir Smirnoff, the emigr? son of Pyotr who sold rights to the name to Kunett, have the right to sell the family name? Or did the rights really belong to his older brother Peter, who had apparently purchased Vladimir's share in 1904?


The future of Pierre Smirnoff's business in Russia hinges on the answer to that question, and while a fight continues in the Russian courts, the London-based company has now upped the ante in the lineage war, signing on the Grand Duchess to bolster its claim that it is the true vodka of tsars.


A legitimate endorsement by the royal family -- which was so much a part of Pyotr Smirnoff's original success -- could be a decisive factor in the modern-day fight between the two companies. But like everything else in the vodka dispute, legitimacy is agonizingly difficult to determine.


Boris Smirnov claims Leonida Georgievna is only one of many expatriate duchesses and princesses who could claim to be a representative of the royal family. But Sergei Sapozhnikov, head of the Russian Nobility Council, said the grand duchess has as much or more authority than anyone in the royal family.


"As the widow of Vladimir Kirillovich Romanov, the former head of the Russian Imperial House, she is the ranking member of the family," he said.


Sapozhnikov acknowledged that the duchess was married to a commoner before marrying Romanov, but said this was not "strictly forbidden" by imperial law.


The duchess, who said at the press conference she had not been paid for her endorsement, insisted the issue was simply one of taste. "[Pierre] Smirnoff vodka is the vodka of choice on tsarist tables," she said, just before knocking down a hefty shot of the product for photographers. "I say, let quality decide."