How the accountants drove us to vodka

We live in the age of Ginoflation when hotel, bar and supermarket shelves are stashed precariously with eccentric designer bottles whose labels proclaim some new angle on botanicals or an ingenious method of hand-crafted distillation. Seriously expensive tonic waters are now lining up as appropriately well-bred consorts. The resurgence of the market, after years in the doldrums, is in part the story of how hipsters have chosen gin to be one of modern life’s things in which to show expertise.


Gin like coffee and bottled ales are products stuffed full of interesting ingredients which make brand building based on what marketing folk call product intrinsics very simple. 50 years ago, vodka was the hot-shot spirit of the day, but its success had very little to do with product intrinsics.


In Moscow the 1860s, Pytor Smirnov built his reputation for distilling vodka by filtering it through charcoal. His grandson, Vladimir, massively expanded sales before getting mixed up in the Russian Revolution and having to make a fast exit for Paris via Istanbul. In 1939, the US importer Heublein bought the rights to what was now called Smirnoff, and as the first and only American vodka for many years, the brand can be given most of the credit for creating a new drinking habit.  Americans were encouraged to call it white whisky (‘No taste, no smell’) and the brand did well after the war as the go-to-spirit for a number of fashionable cocktails which showcased vodka’s perceived potency. These included Screwdriver (with orange) and Bullshot (with beef consommé) and the celebrated Moscow Mule which was created by an enterprising LA bar owner with a glut of ginger beer in his cellar.


In post-war Britain, sales also grew well but were beginning to plateau in the early 70s. The consumer knew the basic product facts about vodka – it was flavourless and colourless and filtered through tonnes of charcoal for purity, but this failed to cut any ice with the drinker. Vodka was seen as characterless as well as flavourless.


What really jump started the brand’s momentum was an engaging ad campaign by Young and Rubicam for their client IDV which emphasised the brand’s extrinsic qualities. Based around the theme ‘The effect is shattering’, which echoed the popular belief that Russian drinkers display their vigour by throwing their empty shot glasses to the floor, the campaign consisted of a series of vignettes which dramatized the-before-and-after conditions in which the product was drunk. The ads always worked best when they set up extravagant and unlikely contrasts. One of my favourite posters featured a louche dude with panama hat and cheroot confessing: ‘Accountancy was my life until I discovered Smirnoff.’ Another featured the obviously colourful and sybaritic life enjoyed by a public librarian who had also made the discovery.


Like all great ad campaigns, the slogan set-up soon entered the language and inspired many unpublishable derivatives. Sales of Smirnoff trebled and in the late 1970s, vodka became the trendsetter of the spirits market. But all good things come to end and pressure from the anti-alcohol lobby forced the client to adapt the campaign.


Sales of vodka remained healthy in the outer-directed, glitzy 80s, and a ‘large V.A.T’ was the signature drink enjoyed by Arthur Dailey in the Winchester club – which mine host, Dave, of course always had to put on the slate.


We still drink a lot of vodka, but in these inner-directed days, it is difficult, although not completely impossible, for it to play the product intrinsics game. Perhaps, we must wait for an end to Puritan austerity before we see the inevitable return of Cavalier high spirits and the extrovert world of vodka.


Paul Christopher Walton

The Brand Historian:

Forays into the annals and archives of the brands we grew up with.



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