Vodka’s winding journey from obscure liquor to America’s favorite spirit

The story of how vodka became the most consumed alcohol in the United States has everything and nothing to do with Russia. The first vodka sold in the United States was distilled in Bethel, Connecticut in 1934, and vodka imported from Russia didn’t reach American markets until the 1970s. America’s favorite vodka-based cocktails — yes, even the Moscow Mule – were invented in Hollywood bars and New York hotels and were generally unknown in Russia.

But since its trip to Connecticut and the clever publicity that spurred its meteoric rise, America’s love for vodka began with a socialist revolution and a man named Vladimir Smirnov.

The history of vodka in America

When the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 swept across Russia, Smirnov was churning out a million bottles of vodka a day at the Moscow distillery he inherited from his father. The family’s vodka was one of Russia’s premium brands and a favorite of the nobles of the Winter Palace, enemies of the new regime. After joining the anti-Bolshevik White Army, Smirnov was captured during the uprising, eventually escaping imprisonment and the death penalty before fleeing the country. Penniless, he settled among a community of Russian immigrants in the south of France, where he opened a new distillery.

A Smirnoff display celebrating 75 years of the Moscow Mule, created in Los Angeles at the Cock ‘n Bull bar / Getty

In France, Smirnov struggled to peddle vodka in a market awash with wine and cognac before meeting Rudolph Kunett. Another émigré, Kunett had fled to America in 1920. Like Smirnov, Kunett’s family owned a distillery in the Russian Empire before the revolution, and he dreamed of reviving the family business in his new home. The two brokered a deal giving Kunett the American rights to the Smirnov surname — now spelled as Smirnoff, a French spelling — and the distillation process, and Kunett returned to Connecticut to open America’s first vodka distillery in 1934.

In the United States, Prohibition had recently been repealed and alcohol consumption was on the rise. But Americans were fond of whiskey, and Kunett sold just 6,000 cases of vodka a year. Liquor might never have caught on if not for a businessman named John G. Martin, who bought Kunett’s struggling business in 1939 for $14,000, or about $290,000. today.

“I’ll never know why,” Martin said The New York Times decades later. The decision was based on pure instinct but proved prescient. At the time of the acquisition, Martin was president of Heublein Inc., a producer of bottled foods and cocktails headquartered in Hartford.

Heublein began marketing the company’s new investment as “white whisky,” a colorless, odorless, and tasteless drink that made it a perfect mixer for cocktails or “alcohol haters who want just buy the shot,” as one drinker put it. . Soon, intrigued consumers were picking up the vodka to mix with everything from milk to Coca-Cola. A bar on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip began mixing the liquor with ginger beer and a little lime in 1946, creating the hugely popular Moscow Mule. The cocktail had nothing to do with Russia, but its name and innovative use of Polaroid instant photos in promotional efforts endowed the drink with a glamor to which Hollywood socialites, and soon the rest of the United States United, could not resist.

Black and white photo of Stolichnaya vodka being poured into Boston Harbor
Demonstrators pour vodka in Boston Harbor on September 14, 1983 to protest the downing of a Korean airliner by a Soviet missile / Getty

Glamor manufacturing

During the Cold War era, even with the rise of anti-Russian sentiment, vodka would continue to trade on an aura of Russian glamour. “There’s something about the allure of Russia that we know from Russian ballet, Russian literature, the Russian winter – that allure outweighs the negativity,” says author and historian Darra Goldstein. Russian cuisine and culture. Advertisers emphasized the vodka’s ties to Imperial Russia rather than Soviet Russia, and ads featured posh garden parties and celebrities smoking cigars or lounging in bathtubs.

The marketing efforts worked. While some Americans have called for a boycott of vodka and the Moscow Mule, many others have flocked to bars in droves to sample the mysterious taboo cocktail. By 1968, vodka had become the second most popular spirit in the country, surpassed only by whisky.

Until Soviet Union-based Stolichnaya entered the American market in 1972 through a deal with PepsiCo, the only ties American vodka had with Russia were those of marketing imagination. Stolichnaya capitalized on this early groundwork with ad campaigns featuring Russian art and architecture. In 1976, vodka was the new number one spirit in America.

Magazine advertisement page for Samovar Vodka with an ornate ballroom
Advertisement for Samovar vodka in 1958, which traded on Russian Imperial-style imagery despite being produced by New York-based Schenley Distillers/Getty

A few years after Stolichnaya entered the market, Absolut debuted across the United States with campaigns featuring cutting-edge art that captured the attention of a younger generation of bartenders. . While the brand is based in Sweden, Goldstein believes its wildly successful ad recalled the sense of Russian glamor that first made the vodka a hit in America. “It was the purity, cleanliness and appeal of Scandinavia, but it was also the Russian soul that they were promoting,” she says.

When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union was officially dissolved in 1991, the door opened for Eastern European countries to export their vodkas to the United States, and the drink did not has since ceased to grow. It remains the most consumed spirit in the United States today, thanks to a complex cocktail of émigré relationships and a touch of creative advertising.

Joshua B. Speller