How a clear, flavorless liquor from Russia became the most popular spirit in America
The dawn of vodka’s popularity in America was in the short-lived post-war glow of friendship between Russia and the United States after WW II. With a little help from marketing geniuses at Smirnoff, vodka began its rise to prominence as America’s favorite spirit but the history of its migration to American liquor cabinets began long before that.
Beginning in 1864, Pyoter Smirnov was distilling vodka in Moscow and by 1886 his was the official vodka of the Tsar of Russia. Following Pyoter’s death and the Bolsheviks assuming power, one of his sons, Vladimir, fled Russia and reestablished the business in France where he changed the name to Smirnoff. In 1934 he sold the brand name to American Rudolph Kunnett who began distilling vodka in the United States. He then sold it to John G. Martin of Hueblein Co. in 1939. While Hueblein relied on its sales of A-1 Steak Sauce as the cash-cow for the company, vodka, not selling so well, was almost abandoned. What became known as “Martin’s Folly” almost got John fired; in what may have been a last ditch effort to make the brand something people wanted to drink, he embarked on a nationwide marketing campaign. Capitalizing on the popularity of America’s new ally just after WW II by marketing the Moscow Mule, made with vodka and Cock ‘N Bull ginger beer, it took America by storm, that is, until the Soviet Union and communism became the next enemy of the state.
While still popular amongst some for the rebelliousness of drinking a spirit from Mother Russia, Smirnoff needed some damage control on the brand and advertised it as using 100 percent American grain and the fact that “it leaves you breathless,” marketing the fact that it takes a stronger nose to smell vodka on someone’s breath than to smell bourbon. Using celebrities like Groucho Marx, Woody Allen and Zsa Zsa Gabor to “endorse” Smirnoff in legendary ad campaigns helped make vodka, especially the Smirnoff brand even more popular.
It wasn’t until Sean Connery, in perhaps the greatest product placement success story in the history of Hollywood, said “Shaken, not stirred,” in reference to his Smirnoff Vodkatini in 1962’sDr. No, did vodka become one of the major spirit categories along with whiskey, gin and brandies. But Smirnoff’s love affair with Bond may have come to an end. Controversy erupted in the James Bond movie empire when MGM decided to have James drink Finlandia vodka in Die Another Dayinstead of his usual Smirnoff. Oh the humanity.
Throughout the ’60s and ’70s vodka, specifically the Smirnoff brand, continued to grow with increased marketing and product placement in movies. By 1978, Smirnoff had become the number one spirits brand in the country. Today, the Smirnoff brand belongs to Diageo, formerly UDV, which also owns popular brands such as Guinness, Bailey’s and Johnnie Walker. Other companies used the same popular marketing techniques to make their brands popular amongst the “in” crowds, but Smirnoff was doing it long before they came along.
Back in Russia, where the popularity of vodka never waned, new entries into the vodka market threatened the American distilled Smirnoff brand, some with ties to the original creator of Smirnoff vodka. In 1991, two great-grandsons of Pyoter Smirnov began distilling vodka again in Russia, laying claim to the original family name and coat of arms. UDV, which owned the Smirnoff brand worldwide in 1991, protested the use of the name with the Russian patent agency and in 1996, when they licensed to produce Smirnoff with a Russian distillery, the lawsuits began to fly. On April 19, 2004, the main lawsuit was dismissed in effect allowing both brands to be distributed legally in Russia. Since then, several more claims to the Smirnov name by vodka distillers in Russia have arisen bringing more confusion as to who is the “original.” Rest assured, there will be no change to the American Smirnoff.
Seeing how people are taking this cocktail contest quite seriously—based on the quality of the entries and having witnessed other bar owners following the judges from bar to bar eyeing the competition—has got me thinking. I could make some money off this thing being a judge. I could leverage free drinks, gifts, hookers, maybe even cash. Yes, if my own sense of morals and honest desire to find the best martini in Boise weren’t so high I could take advantage of my position as a judge. I take the job seriously, however. It is my duty, dear readers, to determine who is the best without undue influence from outside forces.
There are six more bars to go before the finals and this Thursday night the judges will visit three more. At 7 p.m., Michael Cunningham, the bartender at The Bar at the Grove Hotel, will serve The Cucumber Classic, Best in Show and Zeus & Athena with Spicy Ahi Tuna Carpaccio to nibble on.
Next up at 8 p.m., bartender Richard Moore at The Gamekeeper Lounge will sere his classic gin martini with blue cheese/jalepeno stuffed olives. Also served will be the Lady Rostov and The Owyhee Sunkeeper with Gamekeeper Prawns to satisfy our hungry bellies.
At 9 p.m. the classic martini champion from last year’s May Martini Classic, Rachel Roberts, will shake up The Mosaic Classic Martini, The Thyme Bomb and The Tangerine Dream. From the kitchen will emerge the Mosaic PicNic Plate.
Martini Mix-Off tickets are available for $75 at any participating restaurant and entitle you to one martini of your choice at all 12 bars and restaurants. You can use your coupons at any time during May, even for a two-martini lunch. Not only that, it gets you into the gala event on June 4 and gets you a commemorative glass. Go to each restaurant or bar by yourself or join the judges this Thursday night.