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Vodka Nation

How the flavorless, colorless, odorless spirit became a billion-dollar business

Aug 15, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 45 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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Another distributor, G. F. Heublein & Bros., based in Hartford, purchased Smirnoff from Kunett in 1939 for $14,000. But as noted in The King of Vodka, “Heublein was also struggling, relying on its one notable food product, A-1 steak sauce, for most of its revenue.” It wasn’t until after World War II that Smirnoff’s (and vodka’s) prospects began to improve. In a story told many times over, Heublein’s chief, John Martin, and the owner of the Cock ’n’ Bull bar in Los Angeles, Jack Morgan, came up with a drink called the Moscow Mule—vodka, ginger beer, lime—in 1946. By the 1950s the drink was a hit, and more and more Americans began downing vodka.

Not everyone was pleased with this trend. In Between Meals (1959) A.J. Liebling recalled that

The standard of perfection for vodka (no color, no taste, no smell) was expounded to me long ago by the then Estonian consul-general in New York, and it accounts perfectly for the drink’s rising popularity with those who like their alcohol in conjunction with the reassuring tastes of infancy—tomato juice, orange juice, chicken broth. It is the ideal intoxicant for the drinker who wants no reminder of how hurt Mother would be if she knew what he was doing.

And in a 1958 revision of his bestselling The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, David Embury described vodka as “a wholly characterless, dilute grain alcohol that has streaked across the firmament of mixed drinks like Halley’s Comet. .  .  . It is hard to conceive of any worse cocktail monstrosity than the Vodka Martini, the Vodka Old-Fashioned, or Vodka on Rocks.” Never-theless, Embury noted, “In the last half of 1950, the first period for which figures were published by the federal government, there were less than 387,000 gallons of vodka bottled in the United States. For the year 1955, that figure had jumped to almost seven million gallons.” Last year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, Americans spent more than $19 billion on vodka, which translates to 59.4 million cases or 141 million gallons.

Part of the reason for vodka’s popularity is precisely its flavorless, odorless nature. Reprinted in the King of Vodka is a 1934 letter from Vladimir Smirnov to his importer in which Smirnov assures his associate that vodka is “the ideal base .  .  . because of its clarity and freedom from artificial flavor, it blends harmoniously with the Vermouths, Grenadines, bitters, fruit juices, and other ingredients.” As one craft distiller told me, “Vodka is just plain, simple, very easy to make, very easy to use at home, very easy to use in the bar. And that is essentially the success of vodka, because people, all they had time for, was grab some orange juice, grab some vodka, and pour it in, half and half, done.”

The other component was marketing. David Embury concedes:

My hat is off to the American vodka manufacturers and their advertising departments, particularly Heublein, manufacturers of the Smirnoff brand, for what I regard as the most outstanding job of advertising and sales promotion that this country has ever witnessed. I am not so keen about the claim that vodka “does not have an unpleasant liquor taste.” If you don’t like the taste of liquor, why drink it? But the blurb that it “leaves you breathless,” with its double-entendre, is one of the cleverest advertising slogans I have seen.

Smirnoff also garnered celebrity endorsements from the likes of Woody Allen, Eva Gabor, and Groucho Marx.

But perhaps the greatest marketing coup for Heublein was a product placement in the first James Bond movie, Dr. No (1962). Dr. No serves Agent 007 a vodka martini, famously “shaken, not stirred,” and the vodka of preference is Smirnoff. It’s a strange way to make the cocktail, according to Jason Wilson, drinks columnist for the Washington Post: “A martini should always be stirred,” he writes. “That’s the only way you can achieve that silky smooth texture and dry martini clearness .  .  . a shaken martini is a weaker drink.” And don’t get him started on vodka substituting for gin: “There simply is no such thing as a vodka martini. The martini is certainly more of a broad concept than a specific recipe, but the one constant must be gin and vermouth. Beyond correctness, vodka and vermouth is just a terrible match.”

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