The fight between private business and the Russian state over the trademark rights to the world's largest vodka has escalated once more.

Following recent court battles between the Russian vodka company Sojuzplodimport (SPI) and the Ministry of Agriculture over the ownership of Stolichnaya vodka, the Russian government has raised the stakes again by withholding stocks of the spirit currently awaiting departure for the US and UK, among other export markets.

The blockade on exports from the Kaliningrad factory has already affected supplies to the UK market. First Drinks Brands, the UK distributor of Stolichnaya, issued a statement yesterday stating: "Stolichnaya is currently experiencing temporary difficulties in the supply of Stolichnaya Red to its UK customers."

Stoli brand manager at First Drinks Brands Jon Evans said: "With UK sales at an all time high, this latest move by the Russian government - affecting not only the UK, but all international markets for Stoli - is unfortunate, and we would like to reassure all our customers that we are doing everything we can to ascertain from SPI when supplies will be resumed and when deliveries can be expected."

Supplies of Stolichnaya Blue, Cristall and other brands were unaffected the company said.
Meanwhile a spokeswoman for Allied Domecq, Stolichnaya's distributor in the US, its most important export market, said there were no supply problems. "We have plenty of supplies in the US, it is not an issue," she said.

She added that Allied was not concerned by the on-going battle for the trademark. "We have stocks, we retain the distribution rights, there is no issue," the spokeswoman stated.

The Russian government has been attempting to reclaim ownership of Stolichnaya (and a number of other vodka brands) from SPI, who bought the rights off the State in 1992.

The Ministry of Agriculture argues that SPI bought the rights illegally and far too cheaply. SPI purchased the rights to Stolichnaya and the other vodkas in 1997 for US$300,000. The Ministry has also disputed the price paid, saying Stolichnaya and Moskovskaya alone were worth $400m.

SPI says the sale was all legal and above board.

Earlier this year contradicting reports came out of Russia over who had won the rights to Stoli and other vodka brands.  Initial reports said, sided with the government saying the Moscow arbitration court had returned 43 vodka brands to the Agricultural Ministry.

But a subsequent press release from SPI claimed: "The rights of ZAO Sojuzplodimport for trademarks of vodka are completely restored," after the Leninsky regional court of Mahachkala charged the government body Rospatent to restore SPI as the owner.

There have even been reports of a rival Stolichanya brand being set up in the meantime - with Ministry of Agriculture approval - with at least one source claiming the second brand is headed for export markets.