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The Winding Journey of Vodka from Obscure Liquor to America’s Favorite Spirit

Billboard on the corner of Bond Street and Lafayette Street in New York City, advertising Swedish vodka brand Absolut / Getty

The story of how vodka became the most-consumed liquor in the United States has everything and nothing to do with Russia. The first vodka sold in the U.S. was distilled in Bethel, Connecticut in 1934, and imported vodka from Russia only reached American markets in the 1970s. America’s favorite vodka cocktails—yes, even the Moscow Mule—were invented in Hollywood bars and New York hotels and were generally unheard of in Russia.

But from its journey to Connecticut and the clever advertising that spurred its meteoric rise, America’s love of vodka began with a socialist revolution and man named Vladimir Smirnov.

The History of Vodka in America

When the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution swept Russia, Smirnov had been producing a million bottles of vodka per day at the Moscow distillery he inherited from his father. The family’s vodka was one of Russia’s top-shelf brands and a favorite among nobles at the Winter Palace, who were enemies of the new regime. After joining the anti-Bolshevik White Army, Smirnov was captured during the uprising, eventually escaping imprisonment and a death sentence before fleeing the country. Penniless, he settled among a community of Russian emigrés in southern France, where he opened a new distillery.

A Smirnoff display celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Moscow Mule, created in Los Angeles at the Cock ‘n Bull bar / Getty

In France, Smirnov struggled to peddle vodka in a market awash with wine and Cognac before he met Rudolph Kunett. A fellow emigré, Kunett had fled to America in 1920. Like Smirnov, Kunett’s family had owned a distillery in the Russian Empire before the revolution, and he dreamed of reviving the family business in his new home. The two brokered a deal giving Kunett U.S. rights to the Smirnov family name—now written as Smirnoff, a French spelling— and distilling process, and Kunett returned to Connecticut to open America’s first vodka distillery in 1934.

Stateside, Prohibition had recently been repealed, and alcohol consumption was on the rise. But Americans were partial to whiskey, and Kunett was selling a meager 6,000 cases of vodka per year. The liquor may have never broken through at all if not for a businessman named John G. Martin, who bought Kunett’s struggling company in 1939 for $14,000, or around $290,000 today.