Brand Update

Desi Brand

Linda Himelstein: Smirnoff, rags to riches to rags

Chances are, when you take a shot of vodka, the last thing you think about is the story behind the brand.

But there's a lot of history there, especially if the vodka is Smirnoff. In "The King of Vodka," Linda Himelstein chronicles the history of Pyotr Smirnov, the man who built and lost an alcohol empire.

"I became just completely enamored and passionate with the story of this man who was a serf, who came from nothing in tsarist Russia to become one of the richest and most powerful merchants there was," Himelstein says. "And his brand still exists today."

Himelstein fell into the story somewhat by accident, as Smirnov's descendants began to sue for the trademarks and copyrights they had lost under communism. The more Himelstein - then working as the legal affairs editor at Business Week magazine - looked into the saga, the more she became fascinated by the man behind the Smirnoff name.

Part of what intrigued Himelstein was the way Smirnov's story mirrored Russian history. As he bought his freedom from serfdom, Russia went through emancipation. And as the wealthy elite in Russia lost what they'd accrued, Smirnov took a hard hit.

"I was immediately fascinated by it," Himelstein says. "I never really thought about what happened to those people, the haves in Russia, after the revolution."

Smirnov's story also intersects with those of many of his notable Russian contemporaries, which adds to the book's rich historical context.

"Tolstoy was one of the great temperance advocates in the 19th century, and he fought hard against the things Smirnov was doing," Himelstein says. "Chekhov wrote articles, and in some of the articles, he referred to Smirnov and other vodka makers as peddlers of poison."

Chronicling the history was no easy feat for Himelstein, who notes that "The King of Vodka" was a daunting undertaking. Even with a full-time translator working alongside her, the author confronted her fair share of challenges.

"I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, really," Himelstein says. "The language barrier obviously was pretty difficult, and Russia's historical archives are not very much like America's archives, so finding information can be very, very difficult."

But her efforts were worthwhile: "The King of Vodka" is an impressive, in-depth story of a man who might otherwise be forgotten. And while Himelstein still isn't a heavy drinker, she does have a newfound appreciation for the Smirnoff brand.

"Before I started the project, I had no idea what the difference was between various vodka brands," she says. "But now I actually know how to taste them and can taste the difference. And I like Smirnoff."

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