Vodka - American vodka

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Vodka was practically unknown in America until well into the 20th century. Even by 1939, when Charles H. Baker Jr.'s excellent book, The Gentleman's Companion, was published, the author noted that vodka was "unnecessary to medium or small bars." How things have changed.


After acquiring exclusive rights to sell Smirnoff vodka in the US and Canada in 1934 Russian émigré, Rudolph Kunett, established a distillery to produce Smirnoff vodka in Connecticut, USA. At first, Smirnoff vodka was greeted with confusion by Americans, not helped by first being sold as 'Smirnoff White Whiskey. However, people quickly realized that the so-called whiskey could be mixed with almost anything.

The brand started to make progress and the company changed hands again in the late 1930s when Kunett sold out to John Martin of Heublein Co, then a small liquor firm based in Connecticut. Heublein then acquired the world rights to Smirnoff from Vladimir's widow in 1951 and on 15th August 1952 W&A Gilbey Ltd (now part of Diageo) agreed to manufacture and sell Smirnoff vodka in Britain.

Vodka was practically unknown in America until well into the 20th century. Even by 1939, when Charles H. Baker Jr.'s excellent book, The Gentleman's Companion, was published, the author noted that vodka was "unnecessary to medium or small bars." How things have changed.

After acquiring exclusive rights to sell Smirnoff vodka in the US and Canada in 1934 Russian émigré, Rudolph Kunett, established a distillery to produce Smirnoff vodka in Connecticut. At first, Smirnoff vodka was greeted with confusion by Americans, unsurprisingly perhaps as it was first marketed as 'Smirnoff White Whiskey. However, people quickly realized that the so-called whiskey could be mixed with almost anything.

The brand started to make progress and the company changed hands again in the late 1930s when Kunett sold out to John Martin of Heublein Co, then a small liquor firm based in Connecticut. Heublein then acquired the world rights to Smirnoff from Vladimir's widow in 1951 and on 15th August 1952 W&A Gilbey Ltd (now part of Diageo) agreed to manufacture and sell Smirnoff vodka in Britain.

Marketing initiatives such as the Moscow Mule cocktail helped drive a boom in Smirnoff sales, eventually paving the way for an explosion in the popularity of vodka. Smirnoff, and indeed vodka, tuned in perfectly with the atmosphere of the 'swinging sixties'. This period enjoyed a more affluent younger generation, the end of post war austerity and a generally more relaxed lifestyle. Vodka was perceived as a modern pure spirit, which did not cause hangovers and was odourless so could not be detected on a drinker's breath. By 1975, vodka sales in the US had overtaken those of bourbon.

The British and North American markets were, and, in volume terms, still are, dominated by Smirnoff. Consequently, until the late 1980s, many Western vodkas borrowed their imagery from the romantic notion of Tsarist Russia, used Russian sounding names and decorated their labels with imposing crests. Little tended to be said about their main ingredient which was often molasses neutral spirit rather than the more expensive grain neutral spirit. The rise of the super-premium 'designer' vodkas would change that.

 

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