Pyotr Smirnov founded his vodka distillery in Moscow in the 1860s under the trading name of PA Smirnoff, pioneering charcoal filtration in the 1870s, and becoming the first to utilize newspaper ads along with charitable contributions to the clergy to stifle anti-vodka sermons, capturing two-thirds of the Moscow market by 1886. His brand was reportedly the tsar's favorite. When he died, he was succeeded by his third son Vladimir Smirnov (? - 1939). The company flourished and produced more than 4 million cases of vodka per year.In 1904 the Tsar nationalized the Russian vodka industry and Vladimir Smirnoff was forced to sell his factory and brand. During the October Revolution of 1917, the Smirnoff family had to flee. Vladimir Smirnov re-established the factory in 1920 in Constantinople (present day Istanbul). Four years later he moved to Lwów (formerly Poland, now Lviv, Ukraine) and started to sell the vodka under the contemporary French spelling of the name, "Smirnoff". The new product was a success and by the end of 1930 it was exported to most European countries. An additional distillery was founded in Paris in 1925.
In the 1930s Vladimir met Rudolph Kunett, a Russian who had emigrated to America in 1920. The Kunett family had been a supplier of spirits to Smirnoff in Moscow before the Revolution. In 1933 Vladimir sold Kunett the right to begin producing Smirnoff vodka in North America. However, the business in America was not as successful as Kunett had hoped. In 1938 Kunett couldn't afford to pay for the necessary sales licenses, and contacted John Martin, president of Heublein, who agreed to buy the rights to Smirnoff for the value of the distilling equipment. His board thought he was mad. Sales were very slow until they changed the product to use whiskey corks instead. In Kentucky sales rocketed as the distributor started marketing Smirnoff as 'white whiskey, no taste, no smell'.