How Vodka Took Over America

From St Petersburg to the San Diego

There’s a strong argument that vodka, in many ways, is America’s spirit. It doesn’t have a homegrown American story like bourbon, or the long colonial history of rum. Vodka, in the American mindset, lacks the prestige of wine or the ubiquitousness of beer. Yet it’s the most consumed liquor in the country, and an American vodka was recently named the best vodka in the world by the World Drink Awards. Like so many things in a country that is very much a melting pot, America embraced an old-world European spirit and very much made it it’s own. One doesn’t have to look far to see evidence, our blog features: vodkas from Californiavodkas from Idaho, and American craft vodkas.

The story of how vodka became America’s spirit starts more than 150 years ago. The world was shrinking in antebellum America. Major newspapers were filled with tales of intrigue and adventure from well beyond America’s borders, and the public was ravenous with a sense of discovery. The great European migration hadn’t yet happened, so many of the Old World traditions were still unfamiliar to the U.S. population: in particular, alcohol.

That’s how Americans first heard about vodka — in newspapers describing Russia, of course. In the New York Herald in 1859, an unnamed writer traveled to Russia and found a vodka-loving workforce. Very vodka loving, in fact.

“Though they receive rations of vodka, and extra rations on holidays, the fact of a Russian soldier or sailor ever having refused ‘another glass’ is unheard of,” he writes. “Intoxication is, of course, quite common, and no fines, arrest or castigation have any effect in suppressing it.” When the drunkenness became too much and soldiers had to choose between alcohol or punishment, “soldiers often declare their willingness to take two or three hundred lashes more, if they can but get another bottle of liquor.”

Vodka continued to be a Russian oddity throughout the rest of the 1800s. In an effort to describe the liquor to an American audience in 1871, a writer in the Vermont Watchman and State Journal described a “half-gallon of vodka” as “corn brandy.” At this point, America was largely a beer-drinking nation out of necessity, since one of the only ways to make water safe to drink was to give it a baseline alcohol content that would sterilize the more pernicious diseases.

But as America become more of an immigrant nation, the population’s drink choices expanded. In 1907, a writer for Oregon’s The Morning Astorian wrote a story called “Foreign Tastes Imported.” The writer said that the “flood” of immigrants coming into the country “has brought with it in the way of flotsam and jetsam a host of strange liquors, with weird names and subtle effects.” Among that flotsam and jetsam were the Russians and their vodka.

“The thousands of Russians who for the past few years have been flocking to the United States, must have their vodka” the article reads. “Vodka,” it explains, “is a species of whisky or brandy distilled generally from rye, but sometimes made from potatoes. An experience with it furnishes a complete and sufficient explanation for the prevalence of revolution, anarchy, and terrorism in the land of the Czar.”

In fact, it was the introduction of many of these Old World ‘hard’ liquors that drove the call to Prohibition. Previously, a man could consume pint after pint of weak (2%-4%) beer breakfast, lunch, and dinner with few ill-effects. Once this beer began being replaced with liquors, the results were near-disastrous. Working men abandoned their families for the bottle, spending their last pennies on the next sip, and the landscape of boomtowns became denoted by the scourge of drunks passed-out in the streets.

Obviously Prohibition didn’t stick, largely because the appetite for liquor wouldn’t abate, and Prohibition simply opened the door to now-famed criminal elements. As the American economy improved, the average gentleman was less inclined to seek escape from the drudgeries of life through alcohol, and spirits slowly became a more moderate part of normal life.

It wasn’t until America found a new ally in Russia during World War II that the spirit really took off. That’s when vodka found its place in Americans’ hearts thanks to a businessman named John Martin and a boutique Russian vodka called Smirnoff. The flood of high-quality and relatively inexpensive vodka to the American market, combined with a newfound trend towards the consumption of cocktails created a perfect storm for vodka. It was a situation that set vodka on a path of upward mobility that even the Cold War couldn’t slow down.

Celebrities jumped on board. Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, and Zsa Zsa Gabor professed their love for this clean, clear liquor. Sean Connery as James Bond asked for his Smirnoff vodka martini “shaken, not stirred.” It was no longer just a spirit, but a cultural phenomenon.

The rest is history. Since 1970, vodka has been the most consumed liquor by volume in the United States. Today, 32 percent of the liquor market is vodka. American vodka brands are rising in both status and in volume. It was a long time coming, but it’s safe to say that vodka truly is America’s spirit.