Like so many stories of great brands that we’ve chronicled here on the Mule Blog – Absolut and Grey Goose, notably – the story of Smirnoff is the story of a man who rose to unimaginable wealth and success despite being born firmly seeded in the roots of poverty.
Pyotr Smirnov is the little-known name behind the world’s most popular vodka. Born as a serf in Russia, Smirnov lived out a true rags-to-riches story by becoming one of Russia’s richest men by the time of his death in 1898. His fortune of $130 million upon his death would be equal to roughly $3.6 BILLION today.
He began making vodka in 1864, using only the finest ingredients to make his brand of vodka the most prestigious. To market his product, he became one of the first people to advertise in newspaper ads and even made charitable donations to the clergy to keep them from preaching anti-vodka sermons. One of the best parts about Smirnoff’s story, though, is the ingenious way that Smirnov got the vodka into the best bars around Russia.
The story is that in one of Moscow’s poorest neighborhoods, Smirnov invited panhandlers into his home for food and drink before sending them out on a mission: go forth and demand Smirnoff Vodka. At a time when the concept of a ‘brand’ was almost unheard of in Russia (vodka was vodka, no one even bothered with labels), and his gambit at associating a product with his own name paid off. Soon, sales were booming and Smirnoff was a staple around Russia.
Within eight years, Smirnov was grossing 600,000 rubles annually, almost $7 million in today’s dollars. To burnish his image, Smirnov became a prominent member of the Russian Orthodox Church and a philanthropist. It was all part of his lifelong and ultimately successful effort to become official vodka purveyor to the tsar, a title he gained in 1886.
The tsarist government seized control of vodka production in Moscow in 1901, dealing a massive blow to the business. After the revolution, the Bolsheviks nationalized the company and targeted known capitalists such as Smirnov’s son, Vladimir, who narrowly escaped the country. Thanks to him, the vodka empire lived on outside Russia. Smirnoff vodka was registered in Europe in the 1920’s and soon made it to U.S. shores, quickly becoming a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic.