Serious Reads: The King of Vodka, by Linda Himelstein
Here in America, we love booze. Come Friday night (or any night, really) and bottles will be popped across the country. From beer to bourbon, we enjoy a variety of substances—but a staple of many a college party or classic cocktail is vodka. We spent nearly $5 billion on the substance in 2009. (That's a lot of shots.)
The best-selling premium spirit in the world is the Russian-originated Smirnoff. The company has a heritage that stretches back to the early 1800s, with the birth of Pyotr Smirnov. This fascinating heritage is recounted in The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire, by Linda Himelstein.
I was a bit intimidated by this book's impressive size, but was soon engrossed in the family's tale. Pyotr Smirnov was born into serfdom, to a family with meager income but stable living conditions. His father and uncles worked steadily so that the family might eventually buy their way into the merchant class. This class differentiation didn't mean much in terms of social standing, but opened the door to economic opportunities for Pyotr.
Pyotr's involvement with the vodka industry came through his uncle, whose Moscow tavern he dutifully cleaned for many years. In partnership with Smirnov's father, his uncle began a distillery of his own. While the government taxed vodka heavily and relied on the income from said taxes, the industry was still profitable and the Smirnovs did well. When Pyotr took over the business and began experimenting with advertising and fruit-flavored spirits, profits grew even further.
A natural businessman, Pyotr expanded the Smirnov brand beyond vodka to wines and other fermented beverages. For decades his family sustained hardships, of both the personal and economic variety. The book details numerous affairs, failed marriages, rebellious children, and financial spats. And it also takes us through a history of the ever-present prohibition movement in Russia, which knocked holes in the vodka industry throughout the tsar's reign.
After Pyotr's death, the Smirnov dynasty began to crumble. At least half of Himelstein's narrative surrounds the family's turmoil under Bolshevik reign, when they lost nearly everything and Pyotr's successors were scattered across Eastern Europe. While valuable for refreshing one's Russian historical timeline, this part of the story didn't reveal much in terms of the Smirnov legacy. The Smirnov name wasn't reinvigorated until Vladimir Smirnov, Pyotr's third son, partnered with American entrepreneur Rudolph P. Kunett in the 1930s. Kunett was of Russian heritage himself, and had respect for the family's history. Taking on the Western-friendly spelling of "Smirnoff," Kunett re-marketed the brand and slowly it regained its once-legendary status.
Himelstein's book is a wonderful portrait of a man who grew from humble beginnings to vast wealth, always maintaining high quality standards and a strong sense of professionalism. Pyotr Smirnov was a business tycoon who fought tooth and nail to protect his name and his family. His descendants did little to honor his memory, fighting over inheritance and letting the company nearly dissolve in the late 1900s. But the brand is still alive today, and Pyotr's accomplishments noted in this all-encompassing text. Next Friday night, kick back with a Moscow Mule and a copy of The King of Vodka to best appreciate the heritage of your spirits.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves consuming and learning about as much food as possible. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine. She blogs at Feasting on Providence.