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A Slovakian woman is stuck with 30,000 bottles of Russian vodka after Pa.’s ban

"I am definitely not an oligarch," Margaret Bayuk wrote in a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf, asking him to exempt her vodka brand, Ustianochka, from the PLCB's ban on Russian-made vodka.

Margaret Bayuk offers samples of Ustianochka at a previous event. Ustianochka is Russian-made but exclusively sold in Pennsylvania, where it's been taken off state store shelves by the Liquor Control Board.
Margaret Bayuk offers samples of Ustianochka at a previous event. Ustianochka is Russian-made but exclusively sold in Pennsylvania, where it's been taken off state store shelves by the Liquor Control Board.Read moreCourtesy Margaret Bayuk

When you sell liquor in Pennsylvania, you have only one true customer: the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. Even if you buy a cocktail at a bar, the establishment had to buy that booze from the state-run liquor store, just like you.

So when Gov. Tom Wolf urged the PLCB to stop buying and selling Russian-sourced products to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it put Margaret Bayuk in a tight spot.

Bayuk is a 74-year-old Slovakian immigrant and longtime resident of Beaver Falls, Pa. She’s also the sole proprietor of Ustianochka Vodka, distilled and bottled in Russia and exclusively sold in Pennsylvania. It retails for $16.99 a bottle. During the pandemic, she has averaged a modest 20 cases per week in sales, mostly around Pittsburgh.

But now that Bayuk’s lone customer has blacklisted her, she’s sitting on roughly 30,000 bottles of the stuff. Last week she faxed Wolf a letter asking him to reconsider.

“Why are you sanctioning me?” Bayuk wrote. “I am definitely not an oligarch. We own no yachts (or any boats), or luxury cars (my Odyssey has 268,000 miles) and we are paying off a home mortgage like most Americans.”

Ustianochka and Russian Standard are the only two brands affected by the PLCB’s decision, which Bayuk first learned of from The Inquirer on Feb. 27. The next morning, her PLCB buyer called her to explain apologetically that Bayuk’s vodka had been pulled off the shelf and put in a backroom.

“They only do what they’re instructed to do,” Bayuk said in a phone interview, expressing some sympathy for PLCB staff. Besides what the state stores have in stock, Bayuk has a shipment large enough to last the year warehoused in a repurposed limestone mine in Wampum, Pa. She doesn’t know what she’ll do with it.

Her husband, John, a retired family medicine doctor, volunteered an idea. “It’d be nice to dump a pallet in front of the governor’s mansion,” he said.

Pennsylvania is not alone in boycotting Russian spirits, and Bayuk is not the only small-time importer to be hurt. Nearly a dozen states and large chains like Total Wine announced bans in recent weeks. But the move is largely symbolic, as only a small fraction of vodkas in the current market are of true Russian origin.

Moreover, the couple said, the Russians who produced this vodka have already been paid. Blocking the sale of Bayuk’s inventory won’t change that.

“I am not even quite sure that Governor Wolf knows how vodka is made or who regulates it and where the money is going,” Bayuk said. “I spent all the money. I bought all the vodka. I paid the government the federal tax, the duty, which is almost as much as the vodka itself.”

The more she thought about the ban, the more it bothered her.

“It reminded me of the totalitarian regime that I left,” she said.

From communism to commerce

Bayuk lived in Soviet-ruled eastern Slovakia (then Czechoslovakia) until she was 20. She came to Pittsburgh in 1968 to see her grandparents, who had immigrated in the 1930s. She wasn’t certain she would stay, but the opportunities here swayed her: She was soon admitted to the University of Pittsburgh, where she studied biochemistry as an undergraduate and Slavic languages as a master’s student.

Her experience in Pittsburgh contrasted with life in Slovakia, where Bayuk’s family couldn’t afford to bribe communist officials.

“’If you don’t pay, if your father doesn’t pay’ — they don’t tell you that, but my friends got into college and their grades were half my grades,” she remembers.

Bayuk’s path to importing is a roundabout one. During a Caribbean vacation in the early ‘00s, she helped translate for a Russian couple staying at the same hotel; the husband happened to be a whiskey importer.

“We became fast friends. And then, he invited my husband and I to Russia,” Bayuk said.

There, the friend — “he’s not an oligarch,” John interjects — shared his work with them. His passion was infectious, and Bayuk had an entrepreneurial itch she waited to scratch until after their four children had grown.

Her business, Amruss Inc., launched in 2008. She toured a number of distilleries before she chose one in the Perm region that works with Amber Beverage Group, a Luxembourg-based wholesaler that recently donated funds to support Ukrainians.

That’s one point Bayuk cites in her letter to Wolf as a difference between her product and Russian Standard, the other brand banned by the PLCB. She notes that Amber’s parent company, SPI Group, is owned by Yuri Shefler, a Russian billionaire who was exiled in the ‘00s after running afoul of Vladimir Putin. (Shefler, while being anti-Putin, is no saint.) SPI’s highest-profile brand, Stolichnaya, has evaded Pennsylvania’s ban; it recently rebranded as Stoli to distance itself from its Russian roots.

“Incidentally, Stoli vodka still uses Russian spirits but is bottled in Latvia,” Bayuk notes in her letter. “Russian spirits are still actually the best in the world for vodka!”

(Bayuk is correct: Stoli has historically made its vodka using wheat and rye grown on the company’s farms in Russia. The base spirit for Stoli is shipped to Latvia, where it is diluted, filtered, and bottled.)

‘Let the people decide’

Bayuk does not want to be sanctioned by Pennsylvania. Her preference is for the governor to grant Ustianochka an exemption.

She also offers alternatives that would preserve the symbolism of the governor’s decision. First, Bayuk suggests, permit the sale of her current inventory, as it has already been imported.

“Second, you could permit the sale of Ustianochka vodka but donate all or part of the state’s proceeds (about $7 per bottle) to Ukraine relief.”

Third, if the ban stays in place, she asks that the PLCB extend it to Stoli, punishing the same parent company as her vodka supplier.

And finally, she urges the governor to let customers decide. “After all, 99.94% of spirits purchased at State Liquor are not Russian vodka. But please give that tiny minority of 0.06% the opportunity to choose.”

As of Tuesday, Bayuk had not heard back from the governor. When she called his office to make sure he received her letter, his staff said the mail goes through a series of checks. “‘Don’t be surprised if it’s two weeks,’” they told her.

“Apparently he is very busy man,” she said.