How Smirnoff Rose to the Top: No. 1 Premium Vodka Brand in the World

Smirnoff is the best selling vodka brand in the world. More than 25 million cases are sold a year. That is almost a million bottles a day, or ten bottles sold every second! The brand belongs to Diageo, who also owns another ultra-successful brand we have featured: The Success Story of Crown Royal.

Whether you prefer enjoying your Smirnoff Vodka on the rocks, over a vodka martini, or the countless other cocktails that can be made with Smirnoff, there is something for every gentleman. But how did Smirnoff rise to the top?

The Birth of Smirnoff: The 19th Century

Did you know that Smirnoff got its name from its founder? Just like Jack Daniel's! The story of Smirnoff starts in the last quarter of the 19th century in the city of Moscow. Pyotr Smirnov, the founder of Smirnoff, seemed to have a knack for business naturally.

When he founded his vodka business in 1864 at the age of 33, he had big goals. He wasn't looking only to make his vodka popular among the masses but also to supply vodka to Russia's Tsar.

In the next 22 years, he was able to do just that! He became not only a Purveyor to the Imperial Russian (official supplier of vodka to the Tzar) but also the top vodka producer in Russia.

This early success can be attributed to Pyotr's ingenious marketing strategies. It's said that he gave panhandlers food and in return ask them to fan out around the city of Moscow, demanding for Smirnoff vodka. He also made charitable contributions to the clergy to stifle anti-vodka sermons.

He was among the first people to leverage mass advertising through the newspapers. All these strategies worked in tandem to popularize his vodka in the city and the whole country.

Smirnoff Journey in the 20th century

When Pyotr passed on in 1898, he left the vibrant vodka brand to his son, Vladimir Smirnov. The first twenty years of the new century were tough for new vodka business owners.

Between the Tsar nationalizing the vodka industry and the October revolution in 1917, Vladimir was forced to close the distillery and flee the country with his family.

Good thing he was able to bring his vodka recipe popular known as Smirnoff No. 21  with him. In the years between 1920-1930, he re-established the business and opened several distilleries. But none was as successful as the business started by his father.

He soon met a Rudolph Kunnet, a Russian immigrant to the U.S., and sold him the Rights to produce and sell Smirnoff vodka in the United States. This was towards the end of Prohibition in 1933.

This didn't go as planned for Rudolph. Five years later, he sold his vodka business to Hueblein: one of the most successful liquor and food distributors of the 20th century.

At the time, this wasn't considered a wise investment since Americans were mainly whiskey drinkers. But Smirnoff started becoming popular among the masses when a South Carolina salesman began promoting it as "white whiskey – no smell, no taste."

In the 60s and 70s, as the U.S saw a significant rise in white-collar jobs, more people embraced vodka as it was seen as a clean, modern, sophisticated spirit.

The Smirnoff brand passed through the hands of several owners before finding its current home Diageo in 1997. Diageo ramped up production and invented all sorts of new flavors.

On top of the original Smirnoff No. 21  now, there was Peppermint Twist, Electric Berry to Fluffed Marshmallow, among other new flavors.

Smirnoff's Celebrity Endorsements

Smirnoff has maintained close relationships with celebrities from TV personalities and movie stars to mega singers. For example, recently, in 2018, Smirnoff announced that its base vodka, Smirnoff No. 21, which has always been gluten-free, is now also made with non-GMO grain.

The ad campaign starred celebrities Ted Danson and Jenna Fischer. Smirnoff is also featured frequently in the later seasons of the popular AMC program Mad Men.

The involvement of celebrities in Smirnoff marketing campaigns has been the norm since their magazine ads featured Hollywood's hottest stars in the 1960s. 

James Bond and Smirnoff

Smirnoff and James Bond

Smirnoff and the James Bond Franchise have had a close partnership for over half a century now. This started in the 1962 film Dr. No. where Sean Connery's request for a "martini, shaken not stirred" made with Smirnoff vodka helped change how people made 007's favorite cocktail-from using traditional gin to making it vodka-based.

You Might Also Enjoy: How to Make a Martini (Plus 6 Variations Every Gentleman Should Try).

Diageo has built on this partnership over the years with Smirnoff promotional campaigns running during the release of some of the James Bond films. For example, Quantum of Solace in 2008 featured a Limited Smirnoff Vodka "Quantum Of Solace" Edition that included a 750 ml bottle of Smirnoff Black vodka encased in a stainless steel cocktail shaker.

Smirnoff Today

Smirnoff has been the largest global vodka brand in the world for more than a decade now. Today they sell a wide range of products from the base vodka Smirnoff No. 21 and flavored vodkas to malt beverages sold in over 130 countries.

Some of its most popular Smirnoff products include:

  1. Smirnoff No. 21 Vodka
  2. Smirnoff Ice
  3. Smirnoff flavored vodkas such as Green Apple, Orange, Cranberry, and Raspberry.

How do you like to drink your Smirnoff vodka? Share with us in the comments below.


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