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The History of Premium Vodka, Part One – Russia

Vodka is the best-selling distilled spirit in the U. S today. And Smirnoff is the best-selling brand. I can now imagine many of my readers turning up their noses at the very thought of drinking anything other than an ultra-premium brand of vodka.

Well the fact is: The only reason there are “premium” vodkas, is because Smirnoff paved the way. But, more significantly, the only reason you drink them is because you are a sucker for good advertising. These luxury brands stole a page from the Smirnoff playbook and out-marketed the category leader to attract a snobbish niche audience. But the most significant point is this: High-priced, premium vodkas are not better made, they are just marketed differently.

According to the BATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) – the government agency that sets all the rules on spirits – vodka is defined as a neutral spirit “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” Based on this definition, every single vodka should taste perfectly “neutral” making the phrase “premium vodka” oxymoronic.  Now that I have given away the key point of my story, readers only interested in saving money on their Cosmos can skip to the end of Part Two of my story. But, if you’re interested in a brilliant bit of marketing, please read on.

Ironically, in the 50’s and 60’s Smirnoff was considered THE premium vodka because they actively courted a sexy rebel image. Their advertising campaign in 1952 was built on the catch phrase: “Smirnoff leaves you breathless.” While the sexiness of this Madman-era line is blatantly obvious, there was a more sinister hidden meaning. At the time, people assumed that because a neutral spirit had virtually no bouquet in the glass, it could not be smelled on one’s breath either. They believed you could drink vodka at your desk, from a flask while driving, or sitting in a church pew and the boss, a cop, or your pastor would be none the wiser. Those were the days!

Smirnoff actively promoted the steamy side of this brilliant tagline. Their sexy image probably reached it apex in 1962 when James Bond prominently displayed a Smirnoff bottle as he mixed his iconic “shaken, not stirred” martini in the film Dr. No. The hipness of vodka continued throughout the counter-culture era, helping vodka finally eclipse bourbon as the nation’s most popular spirit in 1975. But, the marketing brilliance of Smirnoff began long before this, in the 1880’s the brand’s creator, Piotr Aresenyevich Smirnov, invented guerilla marketing as the way to launch and promote his distilled beverage.

Prior to Smirnov, vodka was a very different beverage. Likely first made in a region of Czarist Russia that is now eastern Poland, for many centuries “vodkas” were not distilled and contained relatively little alcohol, probably about 14%, which is the maximum amount attainable through natural fermentation.  After the distillation process – “the burning of wine” – was introduced, early vodka’s were all “flavored” with herbal infusions.

The word vodka first appeared in Cyrillic in 1533, in relation to a medicinal drink brought from Poland to Russia by medicine merchants. The early 1800’s marked the start of the modern vodka industry as vodkas produced by Polish nobility and clergy became mass-market products.

More significantly, the beginning of the 19th century inaugurated the production of potato vodkas, which immediately revolutionized the market because potatoes simplified and speeded production over grain – much as corn had done for whiskey production in America. However, these potato vodkas were anything but “neutral” and likely smelled very badly in the glass. As anyone who as ever drunk Imo Jochu (the Japanese version of unfiltered potato shochu) can attest, these raw potato liquors have the bouquet of the flatulence following a barroom meal of fried potato puotine and hard-boiled eggs. Please pardon me for even describing it.

Smirnov made great technical strides in vodka production, pioneering charcoal filtering of vodka in the 1870’s, quite likely borrowing this “trick” from the American whiskey producers. Tennessean Alfred Eaton introduced the so-called “Lincoln County Process” to bourbon makers in 1825. This filtration method drips the whiskey through 10 feet of charcoal before barreling. The process is still used in American whiskey production, and it distinguishes Tennessee sour mash whiskeys, like Jack Daniels, from bourbon.

Piotr Smirnov was producing the original premium vodka in a market awash in cheap rotgut moonshine. In an effort to market the differences, he employed a grassroots guerilla campaign. Smirnov would round up men newly arrived to the capital city, invite them to his home, feed them and then ply them with his good vodka. He would then send each man on his way with a small cash gift and the instruction: “Always demand Smirnov vodka wherever you dine or drink” in Moscow.

This alcoholic bribe is not as odd as it may sound. There is a Russian phrase that translates as “wetting the bargain” which refers to the traditional toast of vodka that covers all manner of arrangements in politics and business. Moreover, a vodka ration was widely used as part of payment for many jobs, or even in lieu of wages entirely, in 19th-century Russia.

In line with this practice, it is no surprise that Smirnov also made contributions to the clergy to stifle anti-vodka sentiments from the pulpit. And, he was the first person to use newspaper ads to promote an alcoholic beverage. The result captured two-thirds of the Moscow market by 1886. When the Czar tried and endorsed Smirnov’s vodka, popularity skyrocketed with the Russian aristocracy making his vodka the first must-have “masstige” brand. Unfortunately for Smirnov, his product became the official court vodka just in time for the Russian Revolution. After Piotr’s death, his Moscow vodka revolution quickly evaporated, due to the chaos of the Bolshevik uprising followed by the lack of quality control in the new state-run alcohol monopoly.

It was left to his son, Vladimir, to ensure the brand’s survival. Vladimir narrowly survived himself, supposedly escaping a firing squad on bribery. He fled to Paris, changed his him to the French spelling “Smirnoff,” lived in poverty, and then eventually immigrated to America. There his father’s spirit of guerilla promotion would find a new form.

While no one knows for sure what the exact Smirnov vodka recipe was – whether it was potato and/or grain based. But one thing is certain, while his emphasis on quality disappeared in Russia after the revolution, his technique had a lasting impact on vodka production – distill, filter and dilute to taste. Unlike most other distilled beverages, neutral grain vodka does not necessarily benefit from artisanal manufacturing.

The bearded curmudgeon who tends the still and obsesses over the barrel aging in a whiskey house really has no place in the production of vodka. After the Soviet monopoly turned vodka production into a giant industrialized chemistry experiment, most so-called vodka producers no longer even distill their own spirits. For me, the evaluation of neutral grain Vodka is boring. Superiority is measured by degrees of purity, with the goal being a nearly Platonic ideal of neutrality. This makes arguing over the relative merits of “premium” vodkas akin to evaluating the flavor differences of snowflakes.

Even in the U.S. today, almost all vodka producers buy ethyl alcohol that has been distilled from grain by one of several big mid-western companies like Archer Daniels Midland. These neutral spirits, which are upwards of 95 percent alcohol, are then shipped to the vodka “maker” where it undergoes their recipe for filtration and dilution before bottling. This mechanization of neutral grain vodka production opened an interesting niche for the return of handcrafted potato vodkas. Here the master distiller can, and must, make genuine flavor decisions about how much potato “character” to leave in their vodkas.

The forward flavors of many potato vodkas do no make them the ideal cocktail base for a Cosmopolitan where you want your spirit to be “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” However, potato vodkas can add depth to a Bloody Mary or a Vodka Martini. The distinctive character and savory “umami” of potato vodka also gives them an inherent depth that can stand up to caviar when served straight, and bring genuine substance to vodka sauce. If you haven’t tried potato vodka, you should. Here is a diversity of styles:

Luksusowa, Poland, ±$14
Classic potato vodka flavors that tend to show sweetness in the mid-palate you do not find in neutral grain spirits. Hot alcohol finish some will find unpleasant. Viscosity and fusel oils add depth to a Bloody Mary. Triple distilled.

Blue Ice Vodka, Idaho, ±$24
A full-bodied vodka with a slight sweet citrus aroma. Feels silky and slightly oily on the mid-palate with hints of the earthy flavor of potatoes. It finishes clean. Good choice served neat with caviar or Uni. Quadruple distilled.

Glacier Vodka, Idaho, ±$20
A clean, light vodka that is nearly odorless with slight lemon bouquet. Nice viscosity, with hints of black pepper and licorice on the mid-palate. Very long finish. Good choice for a vodka martini. Supposedly distilled 50 times.

Monopolowa, Austria, ±$13
Perhaps the least characteristic of the potato vodkas here. Except for a slightly increased viscosity, it would be the most difficult to distinguish from a group of neutral grain spirits. Good for any vodka cocktail. Triple distilled.

Chopin, Poland, ±$30
While it is incredibly smooth, Chopin begins with the classic earthy potato flavor that shifts to moderately sweet and metallic on the finish. It has a highly viscous, oily mouth feel that overwhelms the palate when served neat. This might make it a good match for Toro sashimi when served freezer cold, or for added body in a Bloody Mary, but at double the price I would go with the Luksusowa instead. Quadruple distilled.

Suggestion for further reading:
The King of Vodka, The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire by Linda Himelstein.


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2 Responses to The History of Premium Vodka, Part One – Russia

  1. Mike Wilcox says:

    This was really very informative and I almost never drink the stuff. Except at the Vodka Room on West 52nd Street in Manhattan….can’t wait to go back to flex some vodka knowledge muscle.

  2. We know about the magic of Birch – do birch sap jelly (needs 4 times more sap than maple and it’s only good [clear] about two weeks in Spring, turning brown and bitter later) – also the ash from a birch fire can be used as salt and is an excellent fertilizer. The Russian often drink juice from cooked apples with Vodka, you can drink more of it before getting drunk … And good Vodka does not leave a hangover! Cheers! Rene from Mulvehill Creek Wilderness Inn far out in the B.C. Forest …

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