Smirnoff was created by Piotr Aresenyevich Smirnov, who was able to take raw vodka and filter it into through silver birch tree charcial and create a potable drink. While peasants were still filling buckets of their hard stuff, Smirnov’s refined vodka was smooth and imminently drinkable.
When the Czar tried it and liked it in 1886, Smirnov’s career took off. He was appointed purveyor to the royal court and was awarded not just a single coat of arms, but four coats. He became Count Smirnov, and started wearing fur coats. The family became a part of Russian aristocracy just in time for the Russian Revolution. Piotr’s son Vladimir was arrested, escaped the firing squad, fled to Paris, lived in poverty, emigrated to America where he founded the Smirnov distillery again.
Unfortunately, America’s popular spirits were brown goods (like scotch). By 1939, Smirnoff (let’s assume he changed the spelling of his name around this time) couldn’t even afford to pay his $1500 liquor license. He sold to Heublein, where he encountered John Martin, a marketing guy in Bethel, Connecticut, who changed his life again.
Martin positioned vodka as “the white whiskey”. They created cocktails (they invented cocktails) like the Martini, Bloody Mary, Screwdriver and the Moscow Mule. The 1950s were a cocktail revolution. During the first three years sales tripled and then doubled from that. In 1952, the “leaves you breathless” advertising campaign was launched. Smirnoff went to Hollywood and was featured in James Bond movies, Woody Allen starred in Smirnoff print ads, life was one endless vodka martini.