Smirnoff Vodka and The American Resurrection
The American Resurrection
Ed Smith, a Smirnoff dealer in South Carolina, had considerably increased his sales by using a surprising advertising slogan that billed vodka as “White whiskey. No taste. No smell”. It was enough to attract consumers who didn’t like the strong aroma of whiskey and other spirits. And, most importantly, it meant that Smirnoff could be mixed with other ingredients without detracting from their flavours.
A cocktail based on Smirnoff had already been invented in 1941. The idea came from Jack Morgan, owner of a Los Angeles restaurant called the Cock ‘n’ Bull. He couldn’t sell his stock of ginger beer, whose taste didn’t appeal to American palettes, so he tried mixing it with Smirnoff and lemon juice. To promote Morgan’s concoction, Martin had tankards engraved with the name “Moscow Mule” and decorated with a drawing of a kicking mule. It was a big hit in Manhattan bars.
After the war ended and production resumed, John Martin continued the promotion of Smirnoff with the help of the Moscow Mule. Using a brand-new invention, the Polaroid camera, he took a picture of a bartender holding a bottle of Smirnoff and a Moscow Mule tankard. He then showed the photo to another bartender to prove to him that the cocktail was fashionable in his competitors’ bars and that it was in his interest to promote it. He took a second photo and went to see another bartender, and so on. He always left a copy of the photo with the bartender so he could hang it in a prominent place in the bar to show off his fame to his customers.
From then on, the Smirnoff craze took off. The volume sales tripled between 1947 and 1950, and doubled again in 1951.
This was the height of the Cold War, and the promotion of a product of Russian origin was enough to shock more than one American. But John Martin was able to turn even this problem to his advantage. He flaunted the Russian origins of Smirnoff and its czarist connections by putting the imperial emblems on the label. To drink Smirnoff was to take revenge on the Bolsheviks.
But more than anything else, Smirnoff’s success in America was due to the neutral taste of the vodka, which allowed it to be mixed with any other ingredient. Ed Smith’s slogan: “No taste. No smell”, was abandoned because it was too negative and was replaced by another: “It leaves you breathless”.
This slogan was created during a reception given on Long Island. John Martin was serving cocktails made with Smirnoff, and one of the guests exclaimed: “It knocked me breathless”. The advertising man Milton Goodman persuaded John Martin to make it the theme of his campaign. The slogan first appeared in an ad published in Life magazine in 1952. Used in a variety of different ways, the world “breathless” remained the favored slogan of Smirnoff for many years.
After the Moscow Mule helped Smirnoff sales take off, John Martin invented other cocktails in order to create more occasions for drinking vodka. Their exact origin is not always known, but Heublein was always able to use them effectively in the promotion of Smirnoff vodka.
One of the most famous of these cocktails, the Bloody Mary, had been created in 1921 by the bartender at Harry’s Bar in Paris, Fernand Petiot, who called it “Bucket of Blood”. When he moved to New York in 1934 and was working at the King Cole bar in Manhattan’s Saint Regis Hotel, he changed the composition of the drink, adding spices and Worcester sauce to the tomato juice, and dubbed it a “Red Snapper”. It was only later that the drink came to be called a “Bloody Mary”.
Another famous cocktail of the 1950s was the Screwdriver (vodka and orange juice). It was named by American mechanics working in the Middle East, who mixed the drink with a screwdriver. The origins of other well-known concoctions like the Bullshot (vodka and beef bouillon) and the Black Russian (vodka and Kalhua, a coffee liqueur) are unknown, but they were probably invented by creative bartenders and later promoted by Heublein.
With his profits, John Martin was able to finance major advertising campaigns that were notable for their somewhat anticonformist stance. For Americans, vodka was not a traditional drink that they were accustomed to but something new. Its neutral taste was unlikely to displease anyone, and drinking a vodka cocktail made the drinker seem fashionable and even ahead of the times. One of the advertising campaigns used the slogan “driest of the dry”, illustrated by desert scenes that were superbly photographed in a surrealistic style by Bert Stern in Egypt, the Mojave Desert, and other places that were considered exotic by American consumers.
In another ad campaign, Heublein called on show-biz celebrities to appear in humorous situations while drinking a Smirnoff cocktail as a way of illustrating the drink’s originality. Among the stars who passed in front of the camera were Woody Allen, Groucho and Harpo Marx, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Buster Keaton, Marcel Marceau, Benny Goodman, Joan Fontaine, Vincent Price, and many others.