Beach Bites: The King of Vodka

Nothing says summer like vodka. OK, that's not true. Nothing says depressing, oppressive Russian winters like vodka.

But, in any case, nothing says summer like a soap opera-like novel focused on an alcoholic drink.

That's just what you'll find in Phoenix-born-and-raised author Linda Himelstein's new book: The King of Vodka. Just don't ask us how a girl from the Valley ended up writing the chronicles of Russian serf-turned-nobility Pyotr Smirnov.

(Recognize the name? Substitute the "v" for two "f"s and you know exactly who she's talking about: Your favorite cheap, solid vodka that you took shots of in college and now mix with tonic water.)

"It's not like I drank vodka in Phoenix or experienced a harsh winter," Himelstein says. "I don't speak Russian; I'm not a drinker; I'm not a Russian historian. It's remarkable in every way that I wrote this story."

In all fairness, she didn't exactly mean to. Long before she took her family for a nice vacation in Moscow so she could do research in a language she doesn't speak, Himelstein was a reporter at BusinessWeek. In 1996, after the fall of Communism in Russia, the descendants of Pyotr Smirnov sued to get the copyright back for Smirnoff vodka, and Himelstein was assigned to cover the trial. When it was over, she couldn't stop. She was hooked.

"Everybody's heard of Smirnoff, but nobody knew where it had come from," she says.

It might be hard to imagine a time when vodka was not king -- when just about every drink ordered at a bar didn't start with vodka in the bottom of a glass. It is by far the most popular liquor in the world.

But it wasn't until the 1930s that anyone in America drank much of anything but Scotch and whiskey.

The King of Vodka traces the story of Smirnoff vodka back another 100 years, when Pyotr Smirnov was born a poor, illiterate serf in rural Russia. By the time he died at the end of the century, he was one of the richest men in Russia. In between (and for decades after) there were revolutions, three marriages, several wayward sons, a couple czars, dozens of cold winters and a few great money-making schemes.

Himelstein spent the better part of four and a half years tracking this tumultuous story, and the result is a tasty, luscious Russian tale with all the facts you'd expect from a journalist -- and all the drama you'd expect from a book that's primarily about liquor.

Dive into the drama...perhaps with a vodka martini in hand.

Beach Bites marveled over the Fortune Cookie Chronicles yesterday; tomorrow, we dig in to Martha Stewart's Cupcakes.

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