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As only a few very remote communities can fail to have noticed, James Bond is back, in the credible form of Daniel Craig. It is a reinvention tarnished only by some clunky product placement, even by 007’s shameless standards (“Is that a Rolex?” “No, an Omega”, just like you saw in the ad preceding this movie). He is also reunited with a few other old, fee-paying friends, including (after a one-film hiatus where he cheated on it with nouvelle upstart Finlandia) Smirnoff vodka as his approved drinking partner – a relationship that goes back to a brand-boosting name check by Sean Connery in Dr No.

As James Thompson, Smirnoff’s president of global marketing, says: “The James Bond and Smirnoff brands have gone hand in hand for more than 40 years and throughout our rich history together we have both remained true to our roots – clearly original.”

Although Smirnoff has only a subliminal presence in the film – sadly, it impinges less than the cameo shot of Richard Branson at Miami airport – the company is running an ad campaign trumpeting itself as “James Bond’s original vodka”. But is that strictly true?

There is no doubting the intimacy of Bond and his Smirnoff on celluloid. But was it what Ian Fleming had in mind when he wrote about the character? Simon Winder, editor of the Fleming anthology My Name’s Bond, James Bond, and the 007 overview The Man Who Saved Britain, thinks not. Winder has just written a new introduction for the Penguin reissue of Dr No and is adamant that in the novel, Bond is just as specific as Connery was in the film version. Bond says: “I would like a medium vodka dry martini – with a slice of lemon peel. I would prefer Russian or Polish vodka.” Winder adds: “I think the Bond of Fleming’s books, as opposed to the movie version of 007, would shrink from drinking anything he considered a British or American vodka.” Not Smirnoff, then, is the subtext, even though the name is Russian, the family were Russian and, in 1886, the “Smirnov” factory received the precious seal as official purveyors to the imperial Russian court.

However, after the October revolution, the highly successful company was confiscated and the family fled. They eventually settled in Lvov (where the final ‘v’ in the company’s name became the double fs) and another distillery was opened in Paris. But, in 1934, the Depression-hit company was sold to an American, who moved production to the US (the brand is now owned by multinational Diageo).

So when Bond specifies Russian vodka – Polish in 1957 was rare – he must have meant a brand that was imported into the US/Caribbean region in the 1950s and there was only one Russian vodka that was allowed to leave the iron grip of the USSR – Stolichnaya. The Russians used vodka, their sole prized icon, as a hard currency, even entering into a bizarre bartering agreement with PepsiCo at one point.

Now, although the company won’t do anything as crass as to crow about this, Ian Jamieson, the president of Stolichnaya Worldwide, is pleased to confirm it. “As Stoli was the first vodka exported from the former Soviet Union, and in fact championed by Nikita Khrushchev, it is most likely that this would have been the only brand in Fleming’s mind.”

Isn’t this all a storm in a shot glass? Well, not really, not when the global vodka market is worth an eye-blurring £12bn. With that kind of money at stake, brands are becoming ruthless in carving out a niche for themselves and the apparently eternal glamour of 007 is an important hand to play, a way of differentiating you from the masses. And there is a mass of vodka out there.

One of the problems for a drink such as Stolichnaya is that vodka has become the cheddar cheese of spirits. Whisky still has its roots in Scotland, gin should be British, bourbon comes from Kentucky and vodka comes from . . . ? If you had asked that question in the 1950s and 1960s, the answer would have been an almost unequivocal “Russia”, with a few opting for Poland, which claims to win by a short head as the spiritual home of the drink. But, like cheddar (and unlike, say, champagne, Parma ham or Guinness), the ties with its perceived place of origin (don’t get into that Poland v Russia fight, it’s very bloody) have been severed.

Although Smirnoff has been produced in the UK since 1952, it was still promoted as having Russian roots, reinforcing the link. It was the arrival of Swedish Absolut that helped loosen the conceptual apron strings to Mother Russia, opening the floodgates for Finlandia (Finland), Grey Goose (France), Puschkin (Germany), Skyy (USA), Virgin (Scottish) and Brecon (Wales) and many others, albeit with mixed fortunes for some.

Stolichnaya stakes its reputation on its being the only genuine Russian vodka widely available in the US and Europe. “Most American vodkas seem Russian. Stolichnaya is different. It is Russian,” went an advert that ran in The New York Times in the 1970s (a bold move during the cold war), and it is a sentiment due to be revived next year in a global advertising campaign that draws on heavily Russian constructivist-style graphics. Drinkers, it asserts, can be assured this is the same beverage used by Bond, as a daily ration by the Red Army in the second world war and, when nothing else was available, in the latter’s molotov cocktails. This was the vodka used to toast the first meeting of astronauts and cosmonauts in space in 1975. It is as Soviet as the AK-47 rifle.

Again, though, the truth is a tad more murky than it first appears. This battle for authenticity has more twists than the peel in your martini. Because the version of Stoli that Pernod Ricard sells in the US and Europe is claimed to be inauthentic by none other than the Russian government, which handled the privatisation of the Soviet drinks industry with all the potato-headed irresponsibility that helped to create the oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich. The Russians claim that in 1992 bureaucrats rather foolishly sold the Stoli brand and 42 others to a company called SPI (headed by Yuri Shefler, whose international partner is Pernod Ricard) for the princely sum of $300,000. Forty-three vodkas for less than the price of a terraced house in Barnsley. Not bad.

Since then, the Russian government has backed action by the state-owned import-export group Soyuzplodimport and a distillery called Ost Alco to prove they are legally entitled to the name Stolichnaya. So far SPI and Pernod Ricard have been the winners, although – and here’s the rub – after government action they can no longer export their version from Russia. Though it uses the same distinctive constructivist version of the Stalinist Moskva hotel on the label as ever, the international Stoli is distilled in the mother country but bottled and shipped from a distillery in Latvia.

Enter billionaire banker, playboy and party person Roustam Tariko. Just before you hear his words, remember the background noise is the sound of an axe being ground. Tariko is the owner of Russian Standard, the makers of the self-proclaimed “ultra-premium” vodka Imperia, which launched in the US in a caviar-drenched soirée in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. Tariko accuses Pernod Ricard of misleading consumers by claiming it makes Russian vodka. Russian Standard, he goes on, is the real thing. “If Stolichnaya vodka comes from Latvia rather than Russia, it should be honest about that,” he sneered earlier this year. “We think it should be proud of its Latvian
heritage.”

Perhaps it should. After all, none other than Bond’s boss M in the novel Moonraker shows a preference for Latvian liquor. “Not the stuff you had in your cocktail [Bond]. This is the real prewar Wolfschmidt from Riga.” Wolfschmidt still exists, though it is no longer produced in Latvia and is now owned by Jim Beam in the US. But I suggest it should sign up Judi Dench and fast. In the meantime, the mischievous Tariko probably knows that although international Stoli is bottled and shipped from Riga, it is still distilled in Russia at Tambov and Kaliningrad. Ian Jamieson confirms this: “Stolichnaya is distilled to alpha-grade spirit, made into vodka and reduced with water to bottling strength in Russia. It is only put into bottles in Latvia.” So, don’t worry, the actual liquid burning your throat will be Russian. In a Latvian bottle.

Another approach to figuring out which version of vodka the discerning drinker should be having in his or her martini is to ignore all this Bondian bitching and check out what the Russians themselves are drinking. Well, the one to watch out for over there is upstart Nemiroff. In a Moscow poll this year, it came in the top three for quality alongside Absolut and Smirnoff. And where is Nemiroff made? Ukraine. Its stated aim? To dent Smirnoff’s global dominance.

Not so fast, Mr Nemiroff. In a twist worthy of the baffling final 30 minutes of Casino Royale, also punching its way into the fray is Smirnov, a Russian vodka produced by a descendent of the founder, Piotr. After a number of lawsuits, Smirnov is now tucked up in bed with Diageo, which also owns the international “Smirnoff” version. The fight and, no doubt, the mud-slinging isn’t over yet.

Indeed, there are other bloody skirmishes being fought over the clear liquid. Finland, Sweden and Poland want the European Union to restrict the use of the name vodka to spirits made only with barley grain and potato. Against them is the Vodka Alliance of Europe, which is less fussy about the recipe and wants to include the likes of beets or grapes (as used in Ciroc vodka) in the distillation process. Of course, it is hard to care too much about this because, at its core, it is all about market protection.

Forget the hangover caused by imbibing too much vodka, just trying to keep up with this tussle for the hearts and minds (and especially the wallets) of drinkers generates a headache far worse than any morning after. I think I need a drink, maybe a vodka on the rocks. And you know what? I don’t really care where it comes from, just as long as it tastes good and I don’t have to resort to the old Bond ploy of adding black pepper to make sure the impurities sink to the bottom. Za vashe zdorovye!

Novelist Robert Ryan has written a new introduction to Ian Fleming’s ‘Octopussy’ (Penguin, £6.99)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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