A local distillery is fielding its new "Alexander Pushkin" vodka, putting it in the line of fire from the German Berentzen, which has its own "Puschkin" line of vodka and is threatening to take action.

Fruko-Schulz, the fourth-largest distiller in the Czech Republic, came by its newest product name via a bit of poetic license. The distillery holds a permit issued by a descendant of the Russian poet Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin. This descendant happens to have the same name as his more famous ancestor. "It's his name," said financial director Josef Nejedly. "You can check it in his ID."

The distillery has invested two million crowns into special Russian equipment needed to make their Pushkin authentic Russian vodka. The poet's descendant is an active participant in the manufacturing process. "He makes his vodka; we only offer to help," said Nejedly.

The distillery is hoping to sell 100,000 half-litre bottles of its newest product by the end of this year.

The newest vodka on the Czech market is likely to anger Berentzen, a leading independent German spirits and drink producer. But at the moment, no shots have been fired. "Berentzen has threatened to file a complaint, but I don't have any official information," said Nejedly.

According to the Berentzen Web site, the firm is active on the Czech market through distributor Eurobrands/ Berentzen, which they bought in late 1997. When they purchased the distributor, chief executive officer Jan Berentzen said he hoped to add the Puschkin brand to its product line. Neither Eurobrands nor Berentzen were available for comment.

The Patent Office may hold the key for any legal battle that might ensue. "Extra Quality Alexander Pushkin Vodka" was registered on Aug. 15. The owner of the trademark is Alexander Pushkin. There is no local registration for the German's vodka. Berentzen registered its Puschkin name back in 1968, but only in Germany. "If they have not registered the name, they could charge unfair competition," said Karel Cermak Jr., at the law firm of Cermak, Horejs, Vrba.

The new vodka line will push Fruko-Schulz into a more upscale market. A bottle of the vodka will sell for Kc 170. Not only is this about 30% below the cost of comparable imported vodka, but it's also about double the retail price of the Fruko-Schulz rum - its biggest seller. And the tax bill alone - both VAT and excise taxes - for a half-litre of rum is just under Kc 60.

Berentzen can take some solace from the plight of other Russian vodkas around the world. A panel of three federal judges is now deciding the fate of the Smirnoff label, with a group of Pierre Smirnov descendants charging that Diageo, a UK-based drinks giant, has no rights to position itself as the heirs to the original "purveyor to the Russian Imperial Court."

Lyle Frink