Smirnoff: UP AND DOWN IN HISTORY
SMIRNOFF: UP AND DOWN IN HISTORY
Smirnoff is the world’s best-selling vodka and the second most popular brand of alcohol after Bacardi rum. The company has had an eventful history, passing from glory to oblivion and back again, punctuated by familial misunderstandings, a stint underground, expatriation, renewal, and a return to its origins.
It all began in Moscow in the early nineteenth century, around 1816. Two brothers, Yakov and Arseny Alexeyevich, arrived in the capital with their younger brother, Ivan, to set up a wine trading house and spirit manufacture. After the Napoleonic wars, the capital was booming. The two brothers were not yet officially called Smirnov because they were serfs and were dependent on their lord. That didn’t stop them, however, from building up their company and making their fortune in the years that followed. In 1840, Ivan earned enough money to free himself from servitude and began to legally use the name Smirnov.
He opened his first establishment at 10 Barvarka Street in Moscow. At the same time, his brother Arseny was expanding his own business with the help of Yakov and, beginning in 1859, of his son Piotr Arsenyevich, who rapidly showed himself to be a true businessman. In 1862, Piotr took over the company’s direction and created his own distillery. He was a much better salesman than his uncle Ivan, who was succeeded by his sons Sergei and Alexander. After competing with each other for a time, the two Smirnov companies finally merged in the 1880s under the direction of Piotr, who was recognized as the head of the family.
The company established its reputation in part through the use of a new technique, charcoal filtration, which eliminated the maximum amount of impurities. According to the Smirnoff version of the story, it was one of the company’s chemists, Audrey Albanov, who accidentally discovered the effectiveness of this technique during an experiment. He left a bottle of iodine tincture open all night near a piece of charcoal. The next morning, the charcoal was giving off a strong odor of iodine, demonstrating its powers of absorption. According to other sources, however, experiments had already been conducted on the use of charcoal as a filter for vodka as early as 1780 by another chemist, Theodore Lowitz, at the request of the czar. Other countries, including Poland and Sweden, also claim to have invented the technique.
Piotr Smirnov’s business grew rapidly, both in Russia and abroad, thanks to the high quality of the vodka he produced and his good business sense. He became the official supplier of the Imperial Court in 1886, but in 1876 he was already participating in the Philadelphia Commercial Exhibition in the United States, which helped him to obtain the right to use an official coat of arms on his bottles the following year. He obtained three others, in 1882, 1894, and 1896, and they are still used on Smirnoff bottles today. In 1896, the P.A. Smirnov company was at the height of its glory. At the Nizhni-Novgorod Fair, its pavilion was a major attraction, with a live bear and waiters dressed in bearskins serving samples of vodka. Czar Alexander II made a well-publicized visit to the fair, and Smirnov became the sole supplier of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. The company’s pre-eminence continued during the reign of the last czar, Nicholas II.
When he died in 1898, Piotr Smirnov left his five sons a fortune consisting of a company with more than 1,500 employees that produced up to four million cases of vodka and other spirits. It was one of the wealthiest companies in the country.
NATIONALIZATION AND EXPATRIATION
While the company prospered, the seeds of discontent were being sown among Piotr Smirnov’s sons. Some of them left the business and sold their shares. In 1910, the company’s direction was taken over by Eugenia, the widow of one of the sons, but she left the company to live abroad and settled in Italy after remarrying.
Following the revolution in 1917, the company was quickly nationalized and its premises transformed into a state garage.
Vladimir Petrovich, one of Piotr’s five sons, managed to flee the country, taking with him some money and the secrets of vodka-making that had made his family’s fortune. Nicholas, Piotr’s oldest son, passed on to him the right to represent the family.
Vladimir’s lengthy wanderings took him to Poland and Turkey before he finally settled in France in 1928, first in Courbevoie, near Paris, then in Nice, where he set up a distillery the following year.
It was at this time that Smirnoff was adopted as the spelling of the family name in the West. Vladimir, in spite of all his efforts (he even opened another distillery in Poland), never succeeded in reviving the business.
In 1933, he sold the company and its secret techniques to Rudolph Kunett (formerly Kukhesh), a businessman who worked for Helena Rubenstein. Once an alcohol supplier to Smirnov, he knew the vodka business well and planned to expand the Smirnoff company in North America, where Prohibition had finally ended. Kunett set up business in Bethel, Connecticut, and began to produce vodka. But, once again, success was elusive. During the first year, Kunett sold only 1,200 cases of vodka, and 5,000 cases in 1937. It was not even enough to allow him to pay the fee for his distributor’s license.
In 1938, Kunett sold his rights to the Smirnoff name and his distillery to John Martin, who owned a small spirits company called Heublein. Martin, who also lived in Connecticut, knew nothing about vodka; he was just helping out a friend. In 1941, Smirnoff sold more than 22,000 cases of vodka. It was a substantial increase, but not enough to convince the directors of Heublein that the company had a real future. Then, with the entry of the United States into World War II, vodka production was stopped, along with that of many other spirits.