Book Review: 'The King of Vodka' by Linda Himelstein

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Sunday, June 7, 2009


The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire

By Linda Himelstein

Collins. 384 pp. $29.99

Smirnoff Vodka was originally founded by Pyotr Smirnov, a former serf who rose to be vodka maker to the tsar; shortly after his death, his empire crumbled, thanks to a tsarist vodka nationalization, incompetent leadership by his callow children and the Bolshevik revolution. The brand name reemerged years later (with the "v" changed to "ff") after being sold to the West -- possibly illegally -- by one of Smirnoff's sons, who was nearly penniless after having fled the Soviet Union.

It's a good story told poorly. Himelstein is a business journalist, but she sheds little light on either the brand or the man. The documentary evidence (much of which was destroyed by communists) has frequent gaps, the atonal prose offers little analysis, and she has nothing but praise for Smirnov himself, reckoning him blameless for the destructive behavior of his children, who drove the business into the ground.

The brand's American success at the height of the Cold War (with ad slogans like "Smirnoff White Whiskey -- No Smell, No Taste") would be a fascinating story in itself, but feels anticlimactic here, occurring as it does long after the death of the protagonist.

-- Alexander F. Remington

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