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Smirnoff: The Amazing History of a Brand

Linda Himelstein's book explains how Pyotr Smirnov went from serf to the tsar's vodka man, and how the vodka managed to go global

The King of Vodka:The Story of Pyotr Smirnovand the Upheaval of an EmpireBy Linda HimelsteinHarperCollins; 384 pp.; $29.99

A man comes from the dust and in the dust he will end—and in the meantime, it is good to drink a sip of vodka. With this old Russian proverb, author Linda Himelstein opens her captivating business history, The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire. Himelstein, a former BusinessWeek staffer, has produced a deeply researched book on the founder of Smirnoff, the world's No. 1 vodka, now owned by British spirits giant Diageo (DEO). (Disclosure: I knew Himelstein when she was a BusinessWeek editor in the 1990s, but we never worked closely together.) Himelstein draws on more than 500 documents from archives in Russia and the U.S., 19th century newspapers, scores of books, and interviews with experts and descendants of Pyotr Smirnov. The narrative she weaves follows Smirnov from his boyhood as a serf in a farming village 170 miles from Moscow to his death in 1898 as one of Russia's richest men, with a fortune worth more than $130 million. As Himelstein understates it, he was "arguably the most famous vodka maker in the world."