Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putting Bootleg Vodka to Work

MTOleg Udolin showing off the German-built plastic-molding line that makes five-liter bottles.
CHERNOGOLOVKA, Moscow Region -- Some people might be tempted to drink Oleg Udolin's windshield-cleaning fluid rather than use it in their cars. But Udolin doesn't recommend trying it -- even though it's made from bootleg vodka.

"Whether or not people drink our liquid, I don't know," said Udolin, the director of Spirtprompererabotka. "But I do remember people drinking antifreeze not so long ago."

In 1998, Udolin saw stockpiles of cheap, confiscated alcohol piling up around Moscow and saw a business opportunity. He founded Spirtprompererabotka, and the company has since extracted ethyl alcohol from more than 20 million confiscated bottles of alcohol. It repackages the spirits as windshield-cleaning fluid at a plant in the outskirts of Chernogolovka in the Moscow region and sells it to BP service stations, a number of domestic big-name auto-accessory retailers and even the Moscow region police, Moscow railroad police and customs.

The bottles contain a notice stating that the contents are made from illicit spirits.

Obtaining the contraband is sometimes a tricky matter -- Spirtprompererabotka first has to win a court's approval for each confiscated shipment. After that, the company pays 80 kopeks per half-liter bottle of vodka -- which works out at half the price of commercially produced ethyl alcohol -- and the money is transferred to the regional budget.

Udolin declined to give production or profit figures.

"Is it profitable?" he said. "You know I think it is impossible to ask a question like this. It is impossible because the company was not created to turn a profit but to help the state bring order to the alcohol market."

Perhaps proof of this is that while the company does indeed turn a profit from its products, it relies more on commercially produced alcohol due to the unpredictability of counterfeit stings, he said. Most counterfeit alcohol comes from North Ossetia, and the most common labels are Stolichnaya and Moskovskaya, he said.

In a recent tour of the plant, Udolin proudly showed off the windshield-cleaner production line, which he said was the only one in Russia.

"This is the only piece of equipment of this kind in the country and perhaps the world," he said, as a de-bottling line whirred into life behind him, uncapping potentially lethal counterfeit vodka and upending it into a three-meter-long steel trough.

In another room, a German-built Krupp Kautex plastic-molding line prepared plastic five-liter containers for filling.

The end result is first rate, customers said.

"We don't buy low-quality products, and we haven't, as far as I know, had any complaints from customers," said Boris Sukhoverkhov, public relations director for BP filling stations, where the fluid retails for 100 rubles to 160 rubles ($3.15 to $5).

"You can't go anywhere in Russia without it," he said.

Udolin, a burly former army major, pointed out a row of trophies that his products have won. "We participate in all the shows in Moscow and the regions," he said with pride.

On one shelf were the enemy scalps: a row of dubious-looking vodkas, their confiscation dates clearly labeled.

Filipp Zolotnitsky, a spokesman for the police's economic crimes department, said there are other processing centers for confiscated spirits in the country, but the Spirtprompererabotka line was the best known.

"We keep the confiscated products until a court issues a ruling on what should be done with them," he said. "If court-appointed experts believe they are safe to process, then off they go. If they are very dangerous or contain poisonous ingredients, then they are destroyed."

He said about 50 tons of confiscated alcohol are reprocessed per year. About 10 tons are destroyed.

Given that it usually takes six months for a court to make a ruling on counterfeits, the reprocessing system leaves itself open to abuse, said Viktor Makarov, president of Khimsintez, one of the first Russian companies to start reprocessing bootleg spirits. Khimsintez, located in the Moscow region town of Krasnoarmeisk, obtained a license in 1996 and makes a range of alcohol-based products, from perfumes to octane-enhancing admixtures for gasoline.

The problem, Makarov said, is that the bootleg alcohol is held in police warehouses pending a court decision.

"The people who confiscate the products are for the most part not interested in it being processed," he said in a telephone interview.

"But I don't want this, I really do want to process it," he said. "And if I really want to process it, I am either left without these raw materials altogether or it all turns into one gigantic headache."

Khimsintez lodged a complaint with the police last year.

Police spokesman Zolotnitsky said there have been sporadic cases of counterfeits being resold but stressed that the problem has been brought under control in recent years.

Measures were being taken to speed up court decisions, he said.