How vodka infiltrated a bourbon-loving nation. Hint: It started with the Moscow Mule
...“You propose vodka or whiskey?” he asked before answering his own question: “We are on your territory. We will take whiskey.”
Khrushchev was served a highball: bourbon poured over ice and mixed with seltzer. He took a sip and proposed a toast to the United States and his guests. “This is very good whiskey,” he told the group through his interpreter, “but you Americans spoil it. You put in more ice than whiskey.”
Khrushchev had no idea how prescient his words would be in the decade that would follow. Bourbon sales in the United States were relatively strong up until the middle of the 1960s, then began to plummet as consumer tastes changed. Full-bodied straight bourbons were hit particularly hard, and panicked distillers began scrambling to lighten their recipes and to lobby Congress for changes in the official production standards. Just a few years earlier, bourbon had thrived, but now it was folding like a bad musical as sales hurtled toward a historic low point. Of the many causes, the main one came straight from Khrushchev’s homeland: vodka.
Vodka was a sleeper cell, hiding on American soil until receiving its orders. Most Americans had been unaware of its existence as a drink until the Tehran and Yalta conferences held during World War II between Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin. FDR insisted on making dirty martinis for everyone, using a personal recipe that required a copious amount of olive brine. The non-Americans were confused and wary of what many historians have described as the worst martinis ever, and the Russians chose to toast with vodka instead, hoisting glasses of it into the air as if they were tiny trophies. Americans looked and wondered.
Vodka’s main assault on bourbon began in 1946. Sales of the white spirit remained weak, and a Heublein executive named John Martin was wondering how to boost them when he ran into a bartender friend who was trying, unsuccessfully, to push imported ginger beer at his bar in Los Angeles. His creation: the Moscow Mule, a cocktail composed of ginger beer, vodka, and half a lime, served in a copper mug. Like all cocktail origin myths, there are alternative explanations for the drink’s creation, but this one seems most likely. “The Moscow Mule was a Trojan horse,” the adman in charge of the Smirnoff campaign around the drink later quipped. “It introduced vodka to the American people.”
The Moscow Mule was vodka’s insertion team, infiltrating the American countryside and rallying hearts and minds. It had a beachhead in Los Angeles, but where next? What place in America might be susceptible to its message? It turned out to be right where the House Un‑American Affairs Committee thought that every other communist threat from Mother Russia seemed to find safe harbor: Hollywood.