How Smirnoff Conquered the World
Smirnoff – Biggest Vodka Brand?
By the end of the 1950s, Smirnoff had become an important brand name on the American market, and John Martin was already planning the company’s international expansion. He sent Rudolph Kunett, who had owned the company in the 1930s, off to find Tatiana Smirnov, the widow and heir of Vladimir, and to buy the worldwide rights from the Polish company.
In 1952, Heublein concluded a licensing agreement with the British company Gilbey for the production and sale of Smirnoff vodka in Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. On the British market, an advertising campaign was quickly created that stressed the unconventional personality of the Smirnoff lover, who was portrayed as individualistic, relaxed, rebellious, and mysterious. The slogan: “The effect is shattering”. Two years later, Heublein bought out the French branch of Smirnoff. This was the last of those founded by Smirnov family members, and Heublein was now assured of worldwide rights to the name. Licensing agreements were signed in Mexico, Spain, and Italy. By 1965, Smirnoff was exported to or manufactured under license in more than a hundred countries.
An international advertising campaign was born, using the slogan “Pure Thrill”, and was used in all markets. Even James Bond participated, replacing his gin cocktails with Vodkatinis made with Smirnoff, designed to compete with dry martinis on the American market. Three years later, Smirnoff was the number-one best-seller among spirits in the United States. The top spot was later lost to Bacardi throughout the world. Since then, Smirnoff has remained in second place, with sales of more than 170 million bottles.
The most popular vodka in the range is No. 21, with its famous red-labeled bottle. “Smirnovskaya Vodka No. 21” is written on the label in Cyrillic script in reference to the vodka Piotr Smirnov made for the czar’s armies. The grains it is made from are distilled twice in a process that takes twenty-four hours, then the liquid is filtered through charcoal made exclusively of hard woods. Pure water is then added to bring the degree of alcohol to 37.5%.
There are other, less well-known varieties that have a higher alcohol content. The Smirnoff with the silver label contains 45.2% alcohol and the one with the blue label has 50 percent alcohol.
The Return to Russia
At around the same time that the Heublein company was being bought out by British International Distillers and Vintners (IDV) in 1987, Smirnoff made a triumphant return to Moscow and opened a distillery there.
Smirnoff Black is manufactured in Moscow with the same techniques used by Piotr more than a century earlier. It is made with high-quality Russian grains, and the mash is distilled in a copper pot still, creating a more aromatic vodka that is drunk straight and well-chilled or on ice.
The fall of the communist regime, however, was also a wake-up call to the sixty remaining members of the Smirnov family still living in Russia. One of them, Boris, Piotr’s great-grandson, took the owners of Smirnoff vodka to court in an effort to have his family rights to the operation recognized. The first suit was thrown out of court, but another was initiated in 1996.