One of the most influential advertising campaigns in the history of Bourbon was a Vodka campaign. This campaign had a devastating effect on the sales of not only Bourbon, but all whiskey. When this campaign started, vodka sales in the United States were miniscule – less than 50,000 cases of vodka (all brands, but there were not a lot of vodka brands at the time), per year. Vodka sales grew every year after this campaign started and whiskey sales shrank every year as people were enticed to switch from whiskey to vodka.

Whiskey, and Bourbon in particular, was king In the 1950s United States. However, overproduction in this decade led to problems in the 1960s. The price of Bourbon was artificially low and hurting the image of Bourbon brands as people began to think of the “good stuff” as Scotch. To make matters worse, society was beginning to see the carnage caused by drunk driving and the excess of the “three Martini lunch”. These factors opened the doors for a new spirit – Vodka.

Vodka had been around for a long time, but consumers in the United States did not drink it. The regulations state that Vodka “is a clear, odorless and tasteless spirit”, making it very different from whiskey. The sales of Vodka were mainly limited to immigrants from Eastern Europe where Vodka originated. 

The early 1960s changed this as the Heublein Company, who distributed Smirnoff Vodka saw a chance to increase sales of their product. The belief was that you could not smell the alcohol of vodka on your breath after drinking a vodka cocktail. Thus the campaign slogan “It Leaves You Breathless!” was born. You could still have that three Martini lunch if the cocktails were made with vodka. 

Sex sells and Heublein hired Julie Newmar to be featured in their advertisements. She was so central to the advertisement, that the bottle of Smirnoff and her cocktail play a very small part of the image. This particular advertisement is from 1962. The campaign was successful and lasted into the 1970s. As the campaign progressed, more and more Vodka based cocktails began to be served in bars. Each year, the sales of Smirnoff grew and the sales of whiskey shrank.

The success of the Smirnoff campaign caused the whiskey companies in the United States to enter the Vodka category. Many companies looked for an existing European brand to distribute in the United States. Other companies looked to purchase a brand for themselves. In both cases, these companies would often make their own neutral spirits here in the United States to bottle as vodka. Other companies did not even try to purchase the rights to an existing brand and simply started to make their vodka and sell it under an existing brand name. The vodka category was hot and continued to grow until it eventually became the largest by volume distilled spirit sold in the United States.

Even today, vodka sales in the United States are huge. Vodka owes its success to the people at Heublein who saw an opportunity to increase sales because of a social change and created the advertising campaign needed to exploit that opportunity. Other Vodka brands came up with their own advertising campaigns, but none of them had the impact on sales as the “It Leaves You Breathless!” campaign created by Heublein. The success of this campaign came at the expense of whiskey. It was not until the 21st century that whiskey began to regain its share of the distilled spirits market and the production of whiskey reached the level of production attained in the 1950s.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller