February 6, 2007


And the man behind the brands is...
Peter Smirnoff

Peter Smirnoff distilled his first vodka in Russia in 1864, continuously filtering his pure grain alcohol through hardwood charcoal for eight full hours. By 1877 Smirnoff’s vodka had won him his first double eagle, Russia’s highest commercial honor, as the best product in his industry. Two more double eagles quickly followed and in 1886 Peter Smirnoff became the purveyor to the Court of His Imperial Majesty, Czar Alexander III.

As the royal distiller Smirnoff’s sales soared; he was rumored to be producing one million bottles of vodka a day by 1900. But as his affiliation with the Imperial Court made Smirnoff wealthy it also doomed the firm when the government was overthrown in the Revolution of 1917. Vladimir Smirnoff was one of the few family members to escape the carnage and he settled in France where he attempted to recreate the secret family distilling process.

Meanwhile, a Smirnoff supplier, Rudolph Kunett, had sought refuge in America. Upon learning of Vladimir Smirnoff’s efforts he purchased the American rights to the product for $2500 and introduced the first vodka to the United States in 1934. Five years later it seemed he had struck a poor bargain. No one in America was buying vodka, not even displaced Russians. It was considered a lethal potion which delivered particuarly bad hangovers.

When Vladimir Smirnoff, a fourth generation family member in the vodka business, died in 1939 Kunett unloaded the vodka rights to G.F. Hublein and Company for $14,000 and a job. The deal included Kunett’s last 2,000 bottles in his Connecticut distillery. The bottles were filled and labeled but there were no vodka corks left in stock. To clear the bottles out of the closing distillery Hublein president John Martin corked them with Smirnoff’s whiskey corks, left over from a failed attempt to market Smirnoff’s whiskey. It was no wonder the purchase of Smirnoff’s was routinely referred to as “Martin’s folly.”

Martin shipped the remaining vodka to a salesman in the South, assuming that would be the last he heard of the name Smirnoff. The salesman sampled the delivery and found the “whiskey” to be colorless and tasteless. He advertised it on his route as “Smirnoff’s White Whiskey. No Taste. No Smell.” And sold out. As John Martin later said about the sales ploy, “It was rather ingenious, but totally illegal.”

What Martin discovered through his salesman was that people weren’t drinking the vodka straight and chilled as it was traditionally consumed in Russia, but mixed with other drinks. Martin quickly repositioned vodka to Americans as a drink mixer. Today Smirnoff’s is the biggest selling liquor in the United States.


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erikt said...

Vladimir Smirnov was not fourth generation as you state, but second generation. He was the third eldest son of Smirnov vodka founder Pyotr A. Smirnov.