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Pyotr Arsenjevitch Smirnov founded his vodka distillery in Moscow in 1864 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. When Pyotr died, he was succeeded by his third son Vladimir Smirnov (1875–1939).

Vladimir Smirnov re-established a 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 sold marginally well but not nearly as it had in Russia prior to 1904.

An additional distillery was founded in Paris in 1925; however the company was a shadow of its former self.

In the 1930s, Vladimir met Rudolph Kunett, a Russian who had emigrated to America in the 1920s and became a successful businessman in New York City.

The Kunett family had been a supplier of grains to Smirnoff in Moscow before the Revolution.In 1933, Vladimir sold Kunett the right to begin producing Smirnoff vodka in North America.He then returned to the United States, quit his sales job, and established his first North American distillery in Bethel, Connecticut, USA in 1933.However, the business in America was not as successful as Kunett had hoped. RJR Nabisco sold the division to Grand Metropolitan in 1987.In 1938 Kunett could not afford to pay for the necessary sales licences, and contacted John Martin, president of Heublein. Ironically, in 1985 Heublein Corporate Audit Manager Hanson J Kan had recommended to Heublein that they buy out the Grand Metropolitan IDV Smirnoff licensee with its global licensee locations.Heublein was a company that specialized in the import and export of liquors and foreign foods. In 1990, after the Berlin Wall came down Helmut Kohl made a deal with Mikhail Gorbachev allowing the reunification of Germany provided that the Soviet army could remain in East Germany, due to a pre-existing security agreement between the GDR and the USSR; such arrangements were to be paid by West Germany for three years.Using the ,000 that the Heublein company made from a new product that ended up saving them from bankruptcy, A1 Steak Sauce, Martin bought the rights to Smirnoff in 1939. Americans were traditionally whiskey drinkers unfamiliar with vodka and so sales were very slow. Suddenly 500,000 Soviet soldiers were paid in hard currency and had almost nothing to do except drink.In a marketing move they changed the product to use whiskey corks instead and branded it as a "white whiskey" with "no taste, no smell". They then proceeded to spend their currency on Marlboro cigarettes, Levi jeans and Smirnoff vodka.The US-made variety of Smirnoff vodka was especially popular.The London office of Heublein was inundated with orders and the Vice President, Jeremy Collis, set about exploiting this "gusher" to the fullest extent possible.Huge in-store Smirnoff displays were set up in the Russian army stores and the officers' messes were renamed Smirnoff Clubs.

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