From Smirnov to Smirnoff
Naming a vodka is a tricky thing. Most brands strive to evoke heritage and history through slick packaging and glossy ads. Smirnoff needs no such marketing ploys. Its name is steeped in enough intrigue, blood and revolution to fill an entire book. The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire, to be exact.
Linda Himelstein chronicles Smirnov’s rise from serfdom in 19th century Russia to become one of the merchant elite, ultimately fulfilling his quest to dominate the country’s vodka industry. Just as riveting is how his family lost it all, thanks to war, the unraveling of the Romanov dynasty, the Bolshevik revolution, the rise of communism and their own greed and infighting.
It’s all true, a history culled from personal letters, journals, newspaper accounts, court and financial records and other documents. But Himelstein’s writing is so vivid, her voice so authoritative, that somewhere around page 82 I began ignoring the numerous footnotes and end notes and just went with the story.
Smirnov’s determination and business acumen stand in stark contrast to his progeny’s frivolity, extravagance and recklessness amid a time of tumultuous change. The brand endured despite it all. And what about the “ff”?
That came after Smirnov’s third-eldest son, Vladimir, fled communist Russia and recreated the iconic brand. More family contentiousness followed, along with ownership changes, and Smirnoff vodka eventually landed at global giant Diageo.
Smirnoff is now the world’s leading premium spirits brand, selling some 24.5 million 9-liter cases a year, according to Diageo’s web site. As for how it tastes, I still have to back Eric Asimov’s 2005 assessment in The New York Times: “Pure, clean and ultrasmooth, with pleasing texture and classic vodka aroma.”
Long live the king.
Recipe: The Moscow Mule was created in the 1940s at Hollywood’s Cock and Bull. Typically served in copper mugs, this drink is credited with winning Americans over to Smirnoff vodka. To make it, combine 1-1/2 ounces vodka and 4 to 5 ounces of ginger beer in a glass and garnish with a lime wedge.