Spanning continents as well as centuries, the Smirnoff brand has a backstory as colorful as that of any spirits brand on earth. Its flagship vodka, Smirnoff No. 21, first appeared when FDR was in the White House, and in the years since then, it’s generated no shortage of lore, from launching a cocktail craze in the 1940s to besting more expensive brands in recent taste tests.
Here, find 10 items from Smirnoff No. 21’s rich history, each one a conversation starter you can stockpile for your next round of brunch Bloody Marys.
1) It’s the best-selling vodka in America.
As of this publication, Smirnoff No. 21 vodka was still holding down the top spot on the list of the best-selling vodka brands in the United States. As one of the first vodka brands established in America, it’s no stranger to that No. 1 spot, either.
2) It’s made in America, and has been for more than eight decades.
In 1933, a man named Rudolph Kunett purchased the US rights to Smirnoff vodka and began distilling it in the United States. Five years later, he sold the business to John G. Martin of the Connecticut-based company Hueblein, whose flagship product at the time was a steak sauce well on its way to becoming an icon in its own right. Some 83 years later, Smirnoff is still produced in the US. And a Smirnoff Vodka Martini goes pretty well with steak, too.
3) The Smirnoff brand has a rich tradition stretching back to 1864.
The Smirnoff brand traces its origins back to pre-Revolutionary Russia, to a distillery established in 1864 by Pyotr Arseneyevich (“P.A.”) Smirnov. Smirnoff No. 21 vodka is produced today in the tradition of P.A.’s original Russian distillery. How many other vodka brands do you know with roots extending to the Civil War era?
4) It was regionally marketed as “white whiskey” in the US.
According to John G. Martin’s son, also named John, sales of Smirnoff sputtered in the early days, due to Americans’ unfamiliarity with vodka. Their go-to spirit at the time was whiskey. Martin told of an enterprising distributor in Columbia, S.C., who saw a way around this: He marketed Smirnoff as “white whiskey” to capitalize on Americans’ fondness for the brown liquor, and, at least in his neck of the woods, it worked.
5) It opened the door for vodka in America.
Before Smirnoff landed on these shores in the 1930s, vodka had no track record of success in the US. By the end of the 1940s, Smirnoff had gained a foothold in the marketplace and the brand’s sales tripled. Vodka as a general category experienced another major spike in US sales in the 1960s, and then straight-up boomed in the 1980s and ’90s.