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The History of Premium Vodka, Part Two – America

When Vladimir Smirnoff arrived in America with his old product and a new spelling for his name, the most popular spirits in the U.S. were all brown. And worse still, the imported vodkas that Americans had been exposed to were the low-quality hooch familiar to the impoverished immigrants from Eastern Europe. Quite likely the same reeking potato vodkas that existed before papa Smirnov raised the bar. By 1939, Vladimir Smirnoff couldn’t even afford a $1500 liquor license. So he sold his name to the Heublein company, where he encountered an innovative marketer named John Martin.

Martin promoted Smirnoff as “The White Whisky – No taste. No smell.” His timing was right. The cocktail culture that arose during prohibition was a way to mask the prevalent “bathtub gin” of the era. A spirit that didn’t need to be masked was a welcome element that gave flavorful mixers a neutral kick. So Martin invented cocktails like the Vodka Martini, The Screwdriver and the Moscow Mule to highlight their new “White Whisky.” The Moscow Mule was a particularly inspired bit of Heublein hubris.

One of Martin’s associates, Jack Morgan, then owner a Sunset Strip bar called the Cock ‘n’ Bull Tavern, presented him with a problem – he had an overstocked inventory of ginger beer he needed to move before it spoiled. Martin suggested they combined it with Smirnoff and lime and then convince selected bars to market the cocktail with an engraved copper mug (that supposedly enhances the flavor at a molecular level.) The drinker got to keep the Moscow Mule mug. These collectibles can still be found in liquor cabinets and flea markets across America.  This cocktail caught on, and Smirnoff became the first “call vodka” ever seen in bars. These mugs were a branding vehicle that has become a mainstay technique in the fast food industry ever since.

Martin then used a revolutionary new device call the Polaroid Camera to shoot bartenders posed holding a Moscow Mule mug and a bottle of Smirnoff. He gave one photo to the barman and took a second copy to the next bar he visited to prove that the competition was proudly selling Moscow Mules.

The use of Smirnov-style guerrilla marketing to promote Smirnoff as the perfect cocktail base continued after the brand become part of the Diageo portfolio. One ad agency supposedly hired New York hipsters and peppered them throughout the city’s trendiest watering holes where they would order drinks that formerly did not exist. When the bartender admitted not knowing how to mix it, they would recite the recipe in a grand theatrical huff, repeatedly specifying a Smirnoff flavored vodka and then get other patrons to sample the drinks, thereby hoping for a viral spread in the future.

Today, most well-known vodkas literally are just blended “white whiskey” best suited to fruity cocktails. Modern vodkas are neutral grain spirits made from wheat or rye, thoroughly filtered for complete neutrality and smoothness. That troublesome old potato stench is no longer an issue that needs cleansing. Smirnoff has become one of many “well” vodkas, its proud heritage and innovations long forgotten. You probably think of it as a bottom-shelf bottle gathering dust, not even in your sightline as you reach for the Grey Goose, Ketel One, or Belvedere. What Smirnoff has lost in snob-appeal price-point, it makes up for in sheer sales volume and the smug knowledge that you’re paying two to three times their price for a product that is no better made. Sucker.

Allow me to explain. When making any distilled beverage, the master distiller is the first “filter” of those flavor components that will be included in the finished spirit. Repeated distillation of the base “wine” progressively removes water and raises the alcohol levels. But there are multiple alcohol compounds, esters and oils that also can be retained or discarded. The distiller decides how much of “heads” and the “tails” to keep in each pass. These components contain flavor compounds such as ethyl acetate (heads) as well as fusel oils (tails) that impart the “typical” flavors of that particular spirit. The distillation process for all the brown liquors allow different proportions of the “heads” and “tails” to remain in the distillate, giving whiskey, rum, bourbon and tequila their own unique flavor profiles, that are further enhanced by aging in wood. By contrast, the desired clean taste of vodka, requires the distiller to remove virtually all of these compounds through numerous rounds of distillation, or the use of a fractioning still.

Repeated distillation makes ethanol levels too high to be palatable, not to mention putting the spirit outside of legal alcohol limits and making them dangerous to pour near an open flame. While whiskey is generally distilled to its finished alcohol percentage, vodka is distilled until it’s nearly pure alcohol and diluted with water to create the final proof. So, the single biggest factor in the unique flavor of any vodka labeled a “neutral grain spirit” is the source of the water used to dilute it. As it turns out, when you buy a premium vodka, you’re actually paying a premium for your choice of water.

Even more ironic, numerous blind tastings have shown that both beverage experts and ordinary folks can rarely identify their own “favorite” vodka when consumed straight up. In addition, the premium brands are often outscored by the cheaper brands. And that brings us back to Smirnoff.

In January of 2005, the dining editors of The New York Times conducted a blind taste test of 20 premium vodkas and decided to throw in the low-end Smirnoff as a mischievous joke on the tasters. As it turned out, the joke was on them when Smirnoff won. The prices ranged from a low of $13 for the Smirnoff to a high of $34 for Belvedere.  Smirnoff made it to the top of our list for many tasters and was ranked ahead of many status vodka names by the majority of judges. Perhaps even more surprising, is that Grey Goose and Ketel One didn’t even make it into the top ten of the 21 vodkas tasted.

Here is a link to the original The New York Times vodka tasting story entitled A Humble Old Label Ices Its Rivals

Suggestion for further reading:
The Book of Gins and Vodkas: A Complete Guide by Bob Emmons

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3 Responses to The History of Premium Vodka, Part Two – America

  1. Scott says:

    I haven’t had Smirnoff in a long time, but I have had some bad vodka. Tito’s is good and I am a Grey Goose fan along with Skyy. But after your article, I will take another look and the original market maker. Thanks for the great articles.

  2. Eve Celsi says:

    Hmmm… Fascinating as always Mr. Dougherty. Need some help getting through the Skyy in the freezer… next time, will get the classic.

  3. Kris says:

    Interesting, I’d love to leave a reply but I’m off to the liquor store to stock up.. Thanks for the tip.

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