Forget about everything you think you know about vodka. Forget about super-premiums, the ultra-premiums, and the hyper-premiums. Forget about Absolut, Grey Goose, Stolichnaya, and Skyy. The real story about vodka and its revolution among spirit drinkers in the U.S. begins, but certainly does not end, with Smirnoff. Before there was vodka, there was Smirnoff and anyone who drinks and enjoys vodka today should be grateful to that brand for transforming the category from an insignificant dark horse (an ugly duckling) into the brilliant shining star that it is today. Who could have imagined in 1945 that in 2006, vodka would be selling in a range of $20 - $75 a bottle.
Believe it or not, there was a moment in time when vodka was nothing more than a microscopic blip on the radar screen/. Vodka barely existed because Americans preferred their whiskey and gin to what was perceived as a strong alcoholic drink made by and for eastern European peasant farmers. But the history of vodka in the U.S. is a true 'rags to riches' story. Once considered harsh and unappealing, vodka was shunned by American consumers until after World War II. It is not hard to understand why. Tasteless, odorless, colorless, and high in alcohol, what did vodka have going in its favor anyway? What saved vodka from falling into the abyss of obscurity and eventually catapulted sales into the stratosphere, is that which makes vodka the most popular spirit of our time: Its ability to adapt to almost any environment, a chameleon-like quality that allows it to be whatever the drinker desires at the moment of consumption. In a nutshell, mixability.
The idea of an alcoholic beverage that was suitable for mixing any type of juice, making it instantly palatable, had its appeal.
The most important player in the vodka story is a larger-than-life figure by the name of John Martin. In 1939, Martin was president of Heublein Inc., the company that was originally known as G.F. Heublein & Bro., founded by Gilbert and Louis Heublein in 1875. Their father, Andrew Headline, an immigrant from eastern Europe, started the family business by opening the Heublein Hotel on Mulberry Street in Hartford Connecticut in 1859. By the time Martin headed the company, Heublein was the most important wine and spirit importer in the United States, known for its line of fine wine and spirits, but also for its bottled cocktails called Heublein Club Cocktails, the first commercial line of pre-mixed cocktails in the U.S. and perhaps the world. Martin came by his position honestly as he was the great-grandson of Andrew Heublein. Interestingly, Martin was born and raised in England, not the United States. From 1920-1933 Prohibition shut down the wine and spirits industry, but Heublein was able to survive and thrive due to one product that was to become a staple among meat eaters and a familiar site in the kitchens of most American homes, A-1 Sauce. The manufacturing of the sauce began in Hartford, CT in 1918 and it is this product that is credited with saving Heublein from the havoc and destruction that Prohibition wrecked on man wine and spirit producers. Many people believe that it is this English product, originally created for the British monarchy, which single-handedly kept the company afloat.
Only six years after Prohibition and America still in the throes of the Great Depression, John Martin made the biggest gamble of this career. A Russian émigré had set up a company in Bethel, CT, not too far from where Heublein was located. His name was Rudolph Kunett, a refugee from the Russian revolution, who arrived in the U.S. with nothing more than worthless Russian rubles in his pocket and the rights to an unknown product called Smirnoff vodka. Since Kunett was struggling with his business, selling only 4,000 cases annually, he was probably very pleased when John Martin approached him and offered to buy his business. The final sale price was $14,000.00, making Heublein the owner of the Smirnoff name and all international rights to the label. The price must have seemed pretty steep to observers of the time, since financial analysts and people within the Heublein organization dubbed the acquisition, "Martin's Folly." Understandable when we consider that vodka was an unknown entity in the spirits business. In an interview many years later, Martin recalled that in those early days, "even the Russians in the U.S. weren't drinking vodka." This did not bode well for Heublein. Something else that did not sit well with distributor salesmen was the character of this new product that Martin was shoving in their faces and pressuring them to sell. One salesman in South Carolina, the first market outside of Connecticut to sell Smirnoff, was appalled when he noticed that this alien product did not have a taste or smell. After thinking about it for a few minutes, the salesman came up with what Martin called "a rather ingenious idea," to advertise this unknown stuff to the consuming public in stores and restaurants as "Smirnoff Whiskey: No Taste, No Smell." Since this was an era when flavor was not necessarily what Americans wanted in their food or their beverages, and a period when whiskey was the most popular alcoholic beverages in the country, this campaign proved to be a great success among people who wanted to drink spirits but didn't want the taste or perhaps didn't want the smell of alcohol on their breath. We have to remember that this occurred shortly after Prohibition, a time when bootlegged alcohol was not of the highest quality (to say the least) and much of what had been available to the general public was awful and often dangerous. Americans were just starting to test the waters once again when it came to drinking quality spirit.
A good barometer of when a cocktail or spirit has become mainstream is the venerable, Old Mr. Boston Official Bartender Guide. Vodka does not even appear in the guide until the 1953 edition when it included a Vodka Martini Cocktail, Vodka Collins, and a recipe for the Bloody Mary. By the 1957 edition, Old Mr. Boston was actively promoting its own brand of vodka, "Any gin drink can be made with vodka and you'll like it better." That edition listed no fewer than 32 cocktails made with vodka. A spirits writer who was slightly ahead of his time was Ted Saucier, author of Bottoms Up, a cocktail book that included some rather risqué drawings of scantily clad and naked women. The book was published in 1951 and included five vodka-based cocktails, including
4/5 Jigger Smirnoff Vodka,
1/5 Jigger Dry Vermouth,
Stir in mixer. Strain into cocktail glass and add twist of lemon peel.
By the 1950's vodka was on the war path and beginning to infiltrate the hearts and minds of those who were drinking gin and Bourbon.
To be continued in the next issue: click
here for Fall 2006's article.