Coke selling Russian drink in the United States

* Coke selling Krushka & Bochka Kvass in NY Whole Foods

* May roll it out more widely if performs well

* Drink costs roughly $2.49 for half-liter bottle

NEW YORK, June 24 (Reuters) - Coca-Cola Co KO.N is hoping that warming relations between Russia and the United States will spread to consumers' palates.

Coke has begun selling its version of a traditional Russian soft drink called kvass in the New York City area. It plans to announce the move later on Thursday, the same day Russian president Dmitry Medvedev is meeting U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. [ID:nN24131466]

The drink is being launched by a relatively new unit of Coke that is tasked with bringing new drinks to North America, where beverage sales have been sluggish and the world’s largest soft drink maker faces competition from a host of small, innovative start-up brands.

Coke's Krushka & Bochka Kvass -- a sparkling, caramel-colored fermented drink made from grains -- is being sold at Whole Foods Market Inc WFMI.O stores in the New York metro area.

Based on the product’s performance, it could roll out more widely, said Scott Uzzell, general manager of Emerging Brand Incubation within Coke’s Venturing and Emerging Brands. The group investigates and aims to harness new consumer trends in North America with drinks that are less known than its blockbusters like Diet Coke and Sprite.

The unit’s strategy includes creating new products, like its Vio carbonated dairy drink, investing in independent brands, such as Honest Tea and Zico coconut water, and importing drinks it sells abroad.

“We thought this would be fun to learn about with Whole Foods. It has a rich, complex taste -- a very unique offering, very different than anything else that we think is in the marketplace,” said Uzzell. “We don’t know where it’s going to take us, but we believe it could potentially have upside.”

The beverage is sold in half-liter bottles that cost roughly $2.49. Sreten Gajic, the director of new ventures within the Venturing and Emerging Brands group, said the company is targeting “the explorer or adventurer consumer”.

“Russians have been drinking kvass for thousands of years ... whether peasants or czars, all of them drank kvass,” said Gajic. “In that way, it’s a little bit like Coca-Cola. It’s the Russian Coca-Cola.”

Coke launched the Krushka & Bochka brand of kvass in Russia in May 2008. The drink, whose name is Russian for “mug and barrel” was the company’s first-ever fermented beverage, but has so little alcohol that it is classified as nonalcoholic.

Gajic said the drink is light and refreshing and has an aroma reminiscent of “baking rye bread and molasses”.

After being on shelves for several weeks, Uzzell said sales were meeting and exceeding expectations. (Reporting by Martinne Geller; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)