Iconic vodka brand Stoli ‘wants to stand up and be counted’ as a proud LGBT+ ally
Many LGBT+ people instantly think of one thing when they see a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka: Absolutely Fabulous.
A glamorously dressed Joanna Lumley clutching the signature red bottle is an iconic – and, somehow, very gay – image.
This month, Stoli hosted Tuck and Tales, an event in central London featuring performances from queer drag performer Barbs and RuPaul’s Drag Race UK star Crystal.
As the vodka cocktails flowed, attendees celebrated Liberate Your Spirit, the brand’s campaign to help reduce anti-LGBT+ discrimination and make the world a better place.
“We have always felt very strongly about standing with the LGBT+ community,” Stoli’s global CEO Damian Mckinney tells PinkNews. “It’s something that has always been close to our hearts.”
Vodka has a connection to mainstream LGBT+ culture that goes back decades. Alcohol brands were among the first to sponsor events at queer spaces, long before it was fashionable. More recently, Drag Race queens have sipped vodka cocktails in the “interior illusions lounge“. So it’s little surprise that vodka is considered to be the unofficial spirit of Pride.
McKinney is clear that Liberate Your Spirit as a long-term project, rather than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it campaign for Pride Month. Patrik Gallineaux – Stoli’s North American LGBT+ ambassador – has worked with the brand since 2010, so queer issues are certainly not new on their radar.
“This isn’t about putting colours of the rainbow on our labels, then giving ourselves a pat on the back and moving on to another cause to get some easy praise,” he says.
“It’s about supporting something we believe in, because we truly want to stand up and be counted. There is nothing transactional about our support for the LGBT+ community.”
If this comes as a surprise to you, it might be because over the years there has been some confusion over the brand’s origins. Its founder Yuri Shefler was born in Russia, but Stoli has no political affiliation with the Russian government and certainly doesn’t support any state-sanctioned discrimination towards LGBT+ people anywhere.
Still, in the aftermath of the brand’s Ab Fab fame, McKinney admits that they could have shouted more loudly about their association with queer causes.
“We’ve consistently supported LGBT+ people for years, but it was more behind-the-scenes,” he says.
More recently, the brand has supported organisations such as Stonewall and the Harvey Milk Foundation. Their message to LGBT+ people is clear: Stoli is back.
One way Stoli is kickstarting this is by collaborating with queer venues and spaces across the world, to put on more events and engage with diverse communities. Stoli is also working with LGBT+ entrepreneurs and creatives to provide guidance and support so that they can thrive.
“We want to create opportunities to bring people together and celebrate, but also to grow and connect,” he says.
Another big part of Liberate Your Spirit is protecting the environment. Having grown up in Africa, McKinney has seen first hand how inequality and an increasingly volatile climate can be lethal.
The brand is committed to reducing its carbon footprint and investing in the most responsible ways to use water and glass, while ensuring all parts of its operation put sustainability front-and-centre.
Stoli’s green ethos isn’t entirely separate from its plans to promote LGBT+ equality. “I’ve seen a lot of discrimination and hardship in my life, so I know that a big part of sustainability is actually diversity and inclusion,” McKinney says.
Studies have shown that LGBT+ people are twice as likely to join climate campaigns and more likely to base decisions on environmental concerns. Many prominent queer voices – from former Attitude Magazine editor Matthew Todd to iconic activists like Peter Tatchell and 19-year-old social media sensation Jamie Margolin – are also climate campaigners.
“We know that LGBT+ people are invested in making the world a better place and have a long history of activism, so there is a natural connection there,” McKinney says.
There are also themes in the way both issues are sometimes addressed which Stoli is keen to avoid. “Everyone wants to grow trees, rather than actually deal with the deeper issues affecting the planet or change our own behaviour,” he says.
“With an issue like LGBT+ discrimination, we want to similarly help to tackle it on a deeper level, not just on a surface-level.”
Stoli’s association with the sitcoms of yesteryear might make some people feel nostalgic towards it. But when it comes to the brand’s commitment to helping LGBT+ people thrive, it’s all about right now – and building a better future.
Stoli is in it for the long haul. Loudly and proudly.