A strange case of Smirnoff

Paul Rodgers explains how Russian history is putting a Grand Met subsidiary in court
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HARD liquor and arguments have a certain affinity. So the news that the subsidiary of Grand Metropolitan that makes Smirnoff vodka is to be dragged into court comes as no surprise. What is startling is the claim that the Smirnoff brand's advertising is misleading because it indicates that the spirit has links with the Smirnov family.

At first glance, the case brought by Boris Smirnov seems open and shut. Not only does the bottle bear the (anglicised) family name, but also some of the medallions won by his ancestor, Piotr Smirnov, in the late 19th century. Success would bolster Boris's claim to the trademark in Russia, and endanger Grand Met's best-known brand. But deciding whether the company is in breach of US false-advertising laws could be tricky. At the heart of the dispute is the distillery's history. And between the splendours of Imperial Russia and the company's modern incarnation in the West lies the turmoil of the Revolution.

Piotr Arsenyevich Smirnov was born in 1831 to a family of serfs in a tiny village called Kaiurovo, according to his great-granddaughter, Galina Tchinyaeva, a director of the Smirnoff Foundation funded by Grand Met. In his teens he moved to Moscow to work as a servant to his uncle Ivan, a wine merchant and the first member of the family granted a surname.

Piotr was "energetic and smart", said Ms Tchinyaeva through an interpreter. She might have added that he was also a charmer. It is said that a wealthy Russian woman took a shine to the lad while she was visiting the cellars and gave him 200,000 roubles which he used to set up a distillery in 1862.

Vodka has been distilled in Eastern Europe for hundreds of years. It can be made from almost any vegetable, including molasses, potato and even grass, although grain is the preferred ingredient. The innovation that made Piotr a success was a continuous distillation process with a filter system using charcoal made from softwoods, bringing it as close as possible to the ideal of a colourless, odourless, tasteless liquor. It is the technique still used today.

The distillery grew rapidly, and in 1877 Smirnov became purveyor to the Imperial Court, adding the Tsar's coat of arms to its logo. In 1897 a similar honour was bestowed by Oscar II, King of Sweden and Norway. The company employed 25,000 people at its peak and had branches in Paris, New York and London.

At the same time Piotr rose in the stiff hierarchy of Russian society. In 1862 he was a rather lowly "Moscow merchant of the 3rd order", but before he died aged 66 he was awarded the order of St Vladimir, 4th degree, making him and his descendants members of the nobility. He was renowned for his charitable works.

Piotr was married three times and fathered 13 children. After his death in 1898 the story becomes murky. One version has it that his three eldest sons, Piotr junior, Nikolai and Vladimir, tried to continue the business, but failed in 1902 because of poor management and conflicts between them. Another says they reconstituted the business as a partnership that survived until 1916. A third is that the business closed in 1898 due to the establishment of a state monopoly. Ms Tchinyaeva said that Vladimir, her grandfather, went into horse-breeding for a while.

In any case, the family's fortunes took a dramatic turn for the worse when revolution came. Vladimir was arrested for being a wealthy, bourgeois merchant and sentenced to death, but managed to flee to Turkey in 1919, leaving his wife and children behind. From there he went to Lvov, Poland, where he restarted the vodka business.

Although he tried to make a go of it in Poland, France and the US, Vladimir was not as good a businessman as his father. In 1933 he sold out to another Russian refugee, Rudolph Kunett, who six years later passed the business on to Heublein, a wine and spirits company in Hartford, Connecticut that is now a subsidiary of Grand Met.

Heublein's president, John Martin, was thought to be mad for purchasing a distiller that made a liquor Americans had barely heard of. But when production resumed after the Second World War, a shortage of corks meant it had to be shipped with whisky stoppers, and it became an overnight success in North Carolina as "white whisky".

Later, Mr Martin toured bars armed with a newly invented Polaroid instant camera to promote vodka.He offered to take pictures of bartenders mixing a new cocktail, the Moscow Mule, gave them one snapshot to display and took a second to show at the next bar down the street. The novelty instant photographs were proudly displayed over bars across the US, and the drink took off. In the past 50 years US sales of Smirnoff have soared from 1,200 cases to 6 million a year. It is the second most widely known liquor brand in the world after Bacardi rum, and the biggest money-spinner in Grand Met's drinks division, making it well worth defending.

The company, backed by most of Boris's relatives, claims he has no right to the trademark because he is descended from Piotr's youngest son, Alexei, who was never involved in the business. David Scott, Heublein's senior vice-president and general counsel, admits that Boris registered the Smirnoff name in Russia at a time when foreigners were not allowed to reserve trademarks; but, he notes, Russia has inherited obligations under the Paris treaty signed by the Soviet Union to protect well-known international brand names, whether registered locally or not. A formal defence, to be filed next month in the US, is likely to dismiss Boris's claim as "frivolous". But if it were to succeed, it would perhaps be the hardest blow of all to the vodka created by Piotr Arsenyevich.