The King of Vodka [NOOK Book]


In this sweeping history of vodka scion Pyotr Smirnov and his family, distinguished journalist Linda Himelstein plumbs a great riddle of Russian history through the story of a humble serf who rose to create one of the most celebrated business empires the world has ever known. At the center of this vivid narrative, Pyotr Smirnov comes to life as a hero of wonderful complexity—a man of intense ambition and uncanny business sense, a patriarch of a family that would help define Russian society and suffer from the ...

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The King of Vodka

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In this sweeping history of vodka scion Pyotr Smirnov and his family, distinguished journalist Linda Himelstein plumbs a great riddle of Russian history through the story of a humble serf who rose to create one of the most celebrated business empires the world has ever known. At the center of this vivid narrative, Pyotr Smirnov comes to life as a hero of wonderful complexity—a man of intense ambition and uncanny business sense, a patriarch of a family that would help define Russian society and suffer from the Revolution's aftermath, and a loyalist to a nation that would one day honor him as a treasure of the state.

Born in a small village in 1831, Smirnov relied on vodka—a commodity that in many ways defines Russia—to turn a life of scarcity and anonymity into one of immense wealth and international recognition. Starting from the backrooms and side streets of 19th century Moscow, Smirnov exploited a golden age of emancipation and brilliant grassroots marketing strategies to popularize his products and ensconce his brand within the thirsts and imaginations of drinkers around the world. His vodka would be gulped in the taverns of Russia and Europe, praised with accolades at World Fairs, and become a staple on the tables of Tsars. His improbable ascent—set against a sobriety crusade supported by Chekhov and Tolstoy, mounting political uprisings and labor strikes, the eventual monopolization of the vodka trade by the state—would crumble amidst the chaos of the Bolshevik revolution. Only a set of bizarre coincidences—including an incredible prison escape by one of Smirnov's sons in 1919—would prevent Smirnov's legacy from fading into oblivion.

Set against a backdrop of political and ideological currents that would determine the course of global history—from the fall of the Tsars to the rise of Communism, from vodka's popularization by none other than James Bond to Smirnoff's emergence as a multi-billion dollar brand—Smirnov's story of triumph and tragedy is a captivating historical touchstone. The King of Vodka is much more than a biography of an extraordinary man. It is a work of narrative history on an epic scale.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Journalist Himelstein recaptures Russia's golden age through the eyes of the former serf-turned vodka entrepreneur, Pyotr Arsenievich Smirnov (1831-1898). From his early days as a "small-time liquor peddler" to one of Russia's richest men, Smirnov was the nemesis of teetotaling Tolstoy-who blamed the country's late 19th-century woes on his countrymen's thirst for alcohol. As the first Russian brand architect and seller of high-quality, low-cost liquor, Smirnov makes for a fascinating subject in his trajectory and outsize ambition. He applied for the title of Purveyor to the Imperial Court, but "the tsar's refusal, rather than deflating Smirnov's outsized ambition, emboldened it. It aroused something deep inside the man, a creative spark that transformed Smirnov from a competent businessman into one of the most ingenious marketers of his time." While the dozens of obstacles, including the closure of the Imperial Archives and a dearth of information about Smirnov's years of serfdom, might have deterred lesser researchers, Himelstein has triumphed with a timeless book that entertains, informs and inspires any would-be entrepreneur to chase his dreams. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

This is an excellent book about the beginning, peak, near death, and resurrection of one of the best-selling brands of premium spirits. The name Smirnov once represented the splendor of tsarist Russia, and Pyotr Smirnov was one of the great men of his time. Himelstein (former Silicon Valley bureau chief, BusinessWeek) documents Smirnov from his beginnings as a serf in mid-19th-century Russia to his rise to the pinnacle of prerevolutionary society. She also looks at the effect vodka had on that society and the effect the revolution had on the Smirnov family (the distillery was confiscated, prompting Smirnov's business to expand beyond Russia). Himelstein continues following the brand and the family up to the present, including the machinations of various branches of the Smirnov family to regain control of the Smirnov name. This is an extremely well researched book, to be expected from a journalist of Himelstein's stature. She succeeds in making the intertwined stories of the Smirnov family and of Russia both academically rigorous and accessible to general readers curious to know more about their favorite vodka's history.
—John Sandstrom

Kirkus Reviews
A heady tale of tying one on royally-and, after briefly enjoying the ride, paying the consequences. For hundreds of years, writes business journalist Himelstein, vodka has been at once Russia's curse and its fuel, the stuff whereby its soldiers brought Napoleon and Hitler to ruin but condemned themselves and their compatriots to misery as well. Pyotr Arsenievich Smirnov knew that misery well. Born into serfdom in a time of cholera and appalling infant mortality rates, he had the luck of being manumitted in the mid-19th century, at a period when the royal monopoly on certain kinds of alcohol manufacture was being relaxed. All he had to do was swear to not being a Jew, among a few other qualifications, and Smirnov was able to set up shop and acquire a fortune that, in time, "topped 10 million rubles (roughly $132.7 million), making him one of the wealthiest men in all of Russia." Smirnov's good fortune-and that of his rivals the Popovs and other distillers great and small-was that the tsarist's statisticians had acquired a keen appreciation of how much revenue alcohol sales brought the state. Of course, this had negative consequences too, and some of the most interesting passages in Himelstein's well-constructed narrative concern the delicate balance that Russia's leaders have had to strike between abstemiousness and alcoholic ruin in order the keep the wheels of the state turning. Smirnov's success came at a price to his heirs, beginning with a reimposition of the state monopoly on alcohol near the time of his death and continuing with the rise of communism, when some Smirnovs disappeared into the Gulag while others escaped to the West-including one who founded subsidiary ventures that, in1934, would see the manufacture of the storied vodka in the United States. A well-concocted blend of business and political history. Author appearances in San Francisco Bay Area
The Barnes & Noble Review
Brunchtime Bloody Marys, cosmos with the girls, a post-work martini: Vodka-based drinks seem integral to the cocktail today, but it wasn't always so. In fact, according to Linda Himelstein's gimlet-eyed The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire, vodka wasn't even seriously marketed in this country until the mid-1930s, when a Russian-American entrepreneur named Rudolph P. Kunett opened the first vodka factory in the United States, advertising his little-known product to Americans under the following slogan: "Creating a new vogue in cocktails…VODKA by Smirnoff." How right Kunett was. In just a few decades, fueled by an aggressive Smirnoff marketing campaign that would eventually include James Bond's famous "shaken not stirred" endorsement, vodka would ascend to its current status as the nation's top-selling liquor, and Smirnoff to its spot as the bestselling premium spirit in the world.

But the story of how America caught vodka fever is merely a postscript to the central saga Himelstein, who has reported for BusinessWeek and The Wall Street Journal, sets forth in The King of Vodka. The true focus of her meticulously researched and notably sober historical narrative, spanning centuries and continents, is the Smirnov family. Hitching its fortunes to a certain bracingly clear beverage, the clan hoisted itself out of serfdom in the mid-1800s and into the upper echelons of Russian society, only to be brought low again with the onset of the Bolshevik regime in 1917. As she follows cleverly orchestrated business triumphs and costly personal mistakes, from Pyotr Smirnov's birth in 1831 to the present day, Himelstein mixes into the family history a neat lesson in Russia's past and that nation's complicated relationship with alcohol. Smirnov's crafty maneuverings to withstand adverse economic and political conditions shed light on two centuries of commerce and marketing -- and remain instructive about business today.

Born into serfdom, Pyotr Smirnov set about making his way in the world as a young man by catering to the thirsts of his countrymen. "Many serfs were viewed by their masters as 'baptized property,' " Himelstein writes. "Most masters made little distinction between the people who plowed their fields and the horses that pulled the plows. Like merchandise at the community market, they could be bought, sold, or presented as gifts, almost on a whim." Yet, young Pyotr was allowed by his owner to travel first to the nearby town of Uglich, where his enterprising uncle Grigoriy ran a series of inns, and then to Moscow, where another tavern-owning relative had joined the merchant class. This, Himelstein explains, was part of an enormous social shakeup driven by the same Industrial Revolution that had already transformed much of Europe:

In the nineteenth century, Russia's tsars allowed for more free enterprise than virtually any generation since Peter the Great. A newfangled brand of capitalism and entrepreneurship blossomed…. The state could not single-handedly manage all that was needed to jumpstart economic development, from building railroads to modernizing arcane industries to establishing banking centers. Necessity, in its purest form, opened the door to dozens of ambitious go-getters -- especially those involved in less capital-intensive enterprises. Grigoriy, and later Pyotr, were just two of the thousands who seized the moment.

It's probably safe to say that Pyotr seized it more vigorously than most. After buying their family's freedom in 1857, Pyotr and his father, Arseniy, opened a wine cellar in Moscow, selling wine and vodka by the glass and in bulk. Initially, they weren't allowed to distill their own liquor, but within a few years they expanded their product line and opened additional shops -- and when the laws were changed to open the production, distillation, and sale of vodka and spirits to all, Pyotr was well positioned to capitalize. Demand for alcohol exploded in Russia, and Pyotr got moving. Procuring the space and equipment he needed, he set about perfecting his recipes, seeking to create "the tastiest most flavorful vodkas money could buy." His business quickly took off.

Here, we are treated to a wonderful example of a "premium" brand being born. "Word had begun to seep out among locals that Pyotr Smirnov cared about the taste and the purity of his drinks. Stories surfaced that he selected the purest water, finest spirits, and freshest ingredients for his mixtures. Smirnov exploited these stories, suggesting to his mostly lower-class customers that he alone was devoted to making high-quality, affordable liquor." That pure water is important -- but it's the stories that matter.

All this suggests Smirnov was less a genius of the bottle than a wizard of marketing. He launched groundbreaking advertising campaigns, wheedled his way into the upper crust, and snagged a seal of approval from the tsar himself. And, in a story that makes it clear that "viral marketing" is nothing new, he also is said to have hired a bunch of poor immigrants to go back to their neighborhoods and loudly demand his vodka in bars, paying them to make a scene and ask, "How is it possible that your respected establishment does not have such a vodka? It is absolutely the most remarkable vodka there is!" According to lore, the stunt worked like a charm, and the popularity of Smirnov's vodka quickly spread throughout Russia -- and the world.

Sad, then, to learn all the many ways Smirnov's feckless heirs -- painted here as vain playboys prone to blowing their bucks on booze, gambling, and women -- squandered the opportunities he'd handed them and allowed the family company to fall into ruin. Luckily for tipplers, one of the sons, Vladimir, who'd escaped to France after the Bolshevik Revolution and needed to make some quick cash, sold the U.S. rights to the Smirnov brand and formula to the aforementioned Kunett in 1933, who in turn sold the enterprise to another company, which successfully created demand and turned Smirnoff into what is today, a $4.7 billion global brand, owned by the British liquor behemoth Diageo. (The Smirnov family's post-perestroika attempts to lay claim to the brand -- a long legal battle that Himelstein initially reported on for BusinessWeek -- have been, according to the author, essentially thwarted.)

Like the man who is her subject, Himelstein's approach is careful, orderly, and disciplined -- she rarely allows herself to speculate, preferring to stick to facts culled from her years of research in the U.S. and Russia. Occasionally a bit dry, the book compensates for its relative lack of color with a heady sense of its historic purpose. "Americans, you know, were uninformed about Russia, but they were misinformed about vodka," Kunett told The New Yorker in 1955. After reading The King of Vodka, they'll be neither. --Amy Reiter

Amy Reiter, a former editor and senior writer for Salon, has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, Glamour, Marie Claire, Wine Spectator, and American Journalism Review, among other publications.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061876165
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/12/2009
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 883,158
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Linda Himelstein began her career in the Washington bureau of The Wall Street Journal before working at The San Francisco Recorder and Legal Times. In 1993 she joined BusinessWeek as legal affairs editor, writing about a wide array of topics, including the tobacco industry and Wall Street. One of her cover stories helped BusinessWeek win the National Magazine Award. Later, as the magazine's Silicon Valley bureau chief, she wrote about the infancies of eBay, Yahoo!, and other companies. She lives with her family in Northern California.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 9 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 10 of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 22, 2010

    Remarkable Read

    Linda Himelstein did an amazing job of telling the history of one family and capturing the history of an entire nation. The rise and fall of the Smirnov family is a compelling story in and of itself but Ms. Himelstein also shows how it mirrored events in Russia from the early 1800's into the 1930's. This was one heck of a read. Anyone with an interest in Russian history---or anyone who just really wants to read a well written story---should definitely check it out.

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  • Posted January 21, 2010

    A Toast to The King of Vodka

    With great conviction and aplomb, author Linda Himelstein offers readers The King of Vodka, a business history, biography, and captivating tale rolled into one. A former reporter and bureau chief for Business Week magazine, Himelstein sweeps the reader into nineteenth-century Russia and the world and life of Pyotr Smirnov. Born into serfdom in 1831, Smirnov rose to business and social glory through his own smarts and resourcefulness ultimately to build and lord over the heavyweight of all vodkas.

    Himelstein's narrative captures the reader from the start. Here's a sampling: In her prologue about the scene at Smirnov's 1898 funeral, she writes, "As December 1898 arrived, a chill snuck up on Moscow like an invading army. Snow began to fall before daybreak and continued without interruption. Soon, a thick coat of white buried the city. Sledges, large wooden carriages that glided around town on metal runners, took the place of clumsier wheeled vehicles. Within a day, temperatures dropped another fifteen degrees, leaving Russia's then second-largest city in its more typical seasonal state: gray and frigid. ... The heavy wooden doors parted and the archdeacon from St. John the Baptist Church emerged, softly reciting prayers. A group carrying a coffin cover decorated with a wreath made of natural flowers fell into line after him. A choir came out then, singing the Holy God prayer, followed by a dozen workers... At last, a coffin emerged, draped in a sumptuous fabric made of golden brocade and raspberry velvet."

    Throughout the book Himelstein offers up colorful evidence of Smirnov's enterprising marketing tactics. He rounded up job hunters, took them to his house, fed them vodka and food, and presented his instructions: "Now I want you to go back to your neighborhoods, order meat soups, and demand Smirnov vodka everywhere you go." Refuse all substitutions, Smirnov told these early viral marketers and social networkers, and leave the pub in a huff.

    Highly compelling is Himelstein's placing Smirnov in historical and cultural context. Himelstein describes in vivid language the rising wave of Russian capitalism in the 1860s and 1870s and the forces that threatened the business: Tolstoy's anti-alcohol campaign, labor unrest, and, finally, the revolutionary fervor that ultimately resulted in the nationalization of the company.

    Himelstein's eye-popping level of research, which included traveling to Russia and tapping into hundreds of historical sources, including a newspaper that confirmed the weather on the day of Smirnov's funeral, allowed her to write this narrative with authority and passion. It's a wonderful read for anyone interested in Russian history or great entrepreneurs of the past, or anyone who yearns for a tale of human initiative and turmoil. A toast to The King of Vodka.


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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2009

    gripping story of rags to riches entrepreneur

    Fascinating, thoroughly researched story of the Smirnov family beginning with the wildly improbable rise of a minimally educated serf to the heights of business and social success in 19th century Russia. The unfortunately predictable mismanagement of this vodka empire by the pampered squabbling second generation leads to the eventual decline of this business empire though historical events like the government takeover of the vodka industry and the Bolshevik revolution certainly play a role. The final chapters detail the introduction of Smirnoff vodka to America by a Russian businessman who purchases the recipes and rights from one of the family members who apparently no longer owned the business rights. To this day, hundreds of living Smirnov family members continue to wage legal battles to recover the family legacy as well as a share in the profits. Checkhov, Tolstoy, the Tsars, Rasputin, Dostoevsky, Pasternak, Faberge, Nobel, Lenin, Stalin, almost every famous Russian leader, writer and artist cross the stage of this fascinating human drama enlivening this account of 19th and 20th century Russian history.

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  • Posted June 4, 2009

    A Russian Family Odyssey

    GLEAMS OF CAPITALISM at the turn of the last century in Russia did NOT come from the individualism of the serfs who reached into the growing cities for their fortunes. Their chances grew when family member after family member pulled in fellow cousins, nephews, fathers, sons, uncles, and villagers into the new village of suppliers, workers, and purveyors of quality that appealed to the rich, charitable pillars of Moscow's community including the old Tsarist families. To start it all, they provisioned the customary cravings of their own kind: Linda Himelstein's treatment of the careful vodka flavors, the truckloads of fruits blocking thoroughfares to meet the demands of Pyotr Smirnov's burgeoning enterprise, and the inspiration of a man of high and surprisingly sober standards is palatably real. Each careful stepping stone he sought or built and crafted -- cleverly using the regime's own tastes and traits to label his brand -- lets you sense how one breath spells his next success or failure. Merchant classes were heavily tested by corrupt government requirements; his fair treatment of workers let him weather stoppages that plagued his competition; and he kept at it. Wives and children die young but those who survive and get educated beyond the dreams of their Smirnov forefathers lend their own worldly strengths over time. When prohibitionist forces and government monopolies pull down the family income to a few flavored liquors, members of Pyotr's spoiled and fatted progeny as well as old family connections rise again to reach into Europe and America for their next 'Smirnoff' whose enormous market value today started as a glimmer in an uncle's drinking spot where a serf nephew learned to supply, mix and market their cheap yet quality vodka products.

    A joy and education to read, Linda's research and story of the Smirnovs is replete with the historical pressures of a Russia about to lose its Tsars to the Communists, and a family business whose quick rise and wealth boil down in the end to the same strengths of community and family relations that pulled their first generation out of serfdom in the first place.

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  • Posted June 1, 2009

    Vodka with a Twist

    Ms. Himelstein has written a wonderful history of the Smirnov family intertwined with a compelling narrative of a tumultuous 19th century Russia. The landscape of events takes us on twists and turns welding the evolution of the colorful Smirnov family and the impending revolution of Russia. Wonderful in depth research on Russian history a long with hard to find facts on the remarkable man Pyotr Smirnov and generations of Smirnovs. A must read!

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