Bottle #50: Smirnoff Vodka

Bottle #50 is a familiar looking bottle of Smirnoff Vodka. The details have changed over the decades, but its red and white label is still instantly recognizable.

This specific little bottle of Smirnoff is from the United Kingdom, produced in England by International Distillers and Vintners. But despite its Russian name and the English origins of this bottle, Smirnoff is really an American brand.

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It started in Russia, as you’d expect from the name. The brand was founded by Pyotr Arsenyevitch Smirnov in 1864, and it was wildly popular, producing 4 million cases per year by the end of the century. After the Russian Tsar nationalized the vodka industry 1904, Smirnov was forced to sell the company. And after the Bolsheviks took over in 1917, Smirnov’s son Vladimir fled to Poland and set up shop there. The newly rechristened Smirnoff vodka never sold as well as it had in Russia, and in 1933, Vladimir sold the American distribution and production rights to a Russian emigree named Rudolph Kunnett.

Kunnett had big dreams, believing that as soon as Americans discovered vodka, they would learn to love it as much as Russian royalty had. But America in the 1930s had NO IDEA what to do with this colorless and mostly flavorless liquid, so by the end of the 30s his company was floundering.

Enter John Martin, President of Heublein, Inc and the man who would make Smirnoff vodka the iconic brand it still is today. John Martin tells the story himself in this amazing video, but here’s the summary. It’s 1941. Through Kunnett, Martin met Jack Morgan, who ran an English pub in Los Angeles that sold a house bottled ginger beer, which no one wanted either. So they decided to combine them into a drink, which they served in copper mugs from Morgan’s girlfriend, Ozaline Schmidt. She’d just inherited a copper factory, but was having a hard time selling the products.

Smirnoff wasn’t made during WW II, so there was a bit of a hiatus. But beginning in 1947, Martin set off to market it in bars around the country. Imagine him with a suitcase filled with Smirnoff vodka, Cock & Bull Ginger Beer, a copper mug, and a secret weapon – a brand new invention called the Polaroid camera. In post-World War II, American bartenders were skeptical of a drink with a Russian name. But Martin would convince the barman to try it by telling him he’d send him home that very day with a picture of himself to show his wife.

That helped overcome the reluctance, but the real magic came next, because he’d actually take two pictures. One he left at the bar, but the other he’d take to the bar next door to show them that what their competitors were up to. Between 1947 and 1950, thanks to this strategy, Smirnoff vodka sales more than tripled and then nearly doubled in 1951. And then they just kept going from there, making vodka the top-selling spirit in America. And a LOT of that vodka was Smirnoff.

My tiny bottle, though, is English! So what’s up with that? At some point Smirnoff licensed production and sales in the Commonwealth countries to International Distillers and Vintners. My bottle is from that period. It’s 38% alcohol by volume, but that’s written as 65.5 degrees proof, so that means its from before the UK went metric in 1980. The internet says that other bottles that look like mine are from the 1970s, so that’s good enough for me.

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Bottle #50: Smirnoff Vodka

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Bottle #50 is a familiar looking bottle of Smirnoff Vodka. The details have changed over the decades, but its red and white label is still instantly recognizable.

This specific little bottle of Smirnoff is from the United Kingdom, produced in England by International Distillers and Vintners. But despite its Russian name and the English origins of this bottle, Smirnoff is really an American brand.

It started in Russia, as you’d expect from the name. The brand was founded by Pyotr Arsenyevitch Smirnov in 1864, and it was wildly popular, producing 4 million cases per year by the end of the century. After the Russian Tsar nationalized the vodka industry 1904, Smirnov was forced to sell the company. And after the Bolsheviks took over in 1917, Smirnov’s son Vladimir fled to Poland and set up shop there. The newly rechristened Smirnoff vodka never sold as well as it had in Russia, and in 1933, Vladimir sold the American distribution and production rights to a Russian emigree named Rudolph Kunnett.

Kunnett had big dreams, believing that as soon as Americans discovered vodka, they would learn to love it as much as Russian royalty had. But America in the 1930s had NO IDEA what to do with this colorless and mostly flavorless liquid, so by the end of the 30s his company was floundering.

Enter John Martin, President of Heublein, Inc and the man who would make Smirnoff vodka the iconic brand it still is today. John Martin tells the story himself in this amazing video, but here’s the summary. It’s 1941. Through Kunnett, Martin met Jack Morgan, who ran an English pub in Los Angeles that sold a house bottled ginger beer, which no one wanted either. So they decided to combine them into a drink, which they served in copper mugs from Morgan’s girlfriend, Ozaline Schmidt. She’d just inherited a copper factory, but was having a hard time selling the products.

Smirnoff wasn’t made during WW II, so there was a bit of a hiatus. But beginning in 1947, Martin set off to market it in bars around the country. Imagine him with a suitcase filled with Smirnoff vodka, Cock & Bull Ginger Beer, a copper mug, and a secret weapon – a brand new invention called the Polaroid camera. In post-World War II, American bartenders were skeptical of a drink with a Russian name. But Martin would convince the barman to try it by telling him he’d send him home that very day with a picture of himself to show his wife.

That helped overcome the reluctance, but the real magic came next, because he’d actually take two pictures. One he left at the bar, but the other he’d take to the bar next door to show them that what their competitors were up to. Between 1947 and 1950, thanks to this strategy, Smirnoff vodka sales more than tripled and then nearly doubled in 1951. And then they just kept going from there, making vodka the top-selling spirit in America. And a LOT of that vodka was Smirnoff.

My tiny bottle, though, is English! So what’s up with that? At some point Smirnoff licensed production and sales in the Commonwealth countries to International Distillers and Vintners. My bottle is from that period. It’s 38% alcohol by volume, but that’s written as 65.5 degrees proof, so that means its from before the UK went metric in 1980. The internet says that other bottles that look like mine are from the 1970s, so that’s good enough for me.

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