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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stolichnaya Head Yamnikov Dies

Vladimir Yamnikov, the long-time director of Russia's best-known distillery and maker of Stolichnaya vodka, has died at the age of 56.

Yamnikov died Jan. 19, a secretary at the Kristall distillery confirmed Monday. The secretary, who would not give her name, refused to comment on the cause of death.

An employee of Kristall since 1962 and its director since 1980, Yamnikov saw the distillery through numerous changes. He helped it weather Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's war on alcoholism in the late 1980s and the topsy-turvy transition to a free market in the early 1990s.

Kristall was one of two plants that made the Stolichnaya brand, once billed as the "only authentic Russian vodka available in the United States."

While the Russian market was opening up to foreign vodka brands in the early 1990s, the government began slapping heavy taxes on Russian distilleries.

Expensive foreign vodka like Swedish-made Absolut and American-made Smirnoff took over much of the high-end market, while cheap imports undercut domestic vodka by avoiding the excise taxes.

With production plummeting, Kristall was periodically forced to shut down and send its hundreds of workers home on unpaid leave.