The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire
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“A operatic tour-de-force.” —Tilar J. Mazzeo, author of The Widow Clicquot
“An impressive feat of research, told swiftly and enthusiastically.” —San Francisco Chronicle
From Vanderbilt and Rockefeller to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, America’s captains of industry are paragons of entrepreneurial success, and books about business history, from The First Tycoon to The Big Short, show exemplars of capitalistic cunning and tenacity…but just as American cocktail connoisseurs can mistake Absolut, Skyy, Grey Goose, or Ketel One for the quintessential clear spirit, so too has America’s vision of business history remained naïve to a truth long recognized in Eastern Europe: since the time of Tsar Nicholas, both vodka and commercial success have been synonymous in Russia with one name—Smirnoff. Linda Himelstein’s critically acclaimed biography of Russian vodka scion Pyotr Smirnov—a finalist for the James Beard Award, winner of the IACP and Saroyan Awards, and a BusinessWeek Best Business Book of 2009—is the sweeping story of entrepreneurship, empire, and epicurean triumph unlike anything the world has ever seen before.
people turned en masse to these passionate, energized men. Lenin returned in disguise to Petrograd and settled into a Bolshevik hideout. On October 24, 1917, Trotskiy assumed the role of conductor, orchestrating a comprehensive strike. The Bolsheviks systematically seized control of Petrograd’s infrastructure—from the post office to the train stations to telephone and telegraph offices. Red Guards infiltrated the Winter Palace, home of the provisional government where its anxious ministers were
continued to try to sell in other countries, signed the documents on behalf of himself and Nikolay, while the three other owners, including Valentina, signed for themselves. Just after the repeal of prohibition, in March 1934 Kunett opened the first vodka factory in the United States. Located in a long, two-story building near the center of Bethel, Connecticut, a sleepy southern New England town just sixty miles from New York City, the factory’s location was perfect for the fledgling operation.
Undeterred, Smirnov made his case in an application to the minister of the Imperial Court, dated February 20, 1869. According to his application, he emphasized the scope of his business—producing foreign and Russian grape wines, liqueurs, fruit liqueurs, and vodkas. He then tried to sell the court. “Specialists recall finding in my wines workmanship of such a degree that they do not in the least pale in comparison to well-known factories in St. Petersburg and Moscow. I am taking the courage to
graduated from Aleksandro-Mariinskoye, she was both educated and cultured. Mariya’s sophistication would have appealed to Smirnov. Unlike his first two wives who shared similar backgrounds to Smirnov’s own, this time the vodka maker wanted a woman who could improve or even augment his prospects. That meant choosing someone who was not only educated but who also had at least some knowledge and understanding of the mainstays of Russia’s upper crust. The daughters of true aristocrats, who were
bonuses to make his case. “My older brothers, having the majority of voices [in the company], chose themselves to be directors of the company. They gave themselves each a 60,000 rubles salary yearly and 70,000 rubles bonus, even when the company started to suffer because of the introduction of the monopoly. Objections by my younger brother’s guardians couldn’t change anything.”18 In a letter to Moscow’s general-governor dated July 6, 1902, Sergey outlined the ugly charges against him as well as