Industry Insiders: Claire Smith, Belvedere Ambassador

Belvedere's master mixologist, Claire Smith, on launching the world’s first super-premium vodka and the return of the classic cocktail and speakeasy bar.

What is your favorite classic cocktail? It changes day by day, but I suppose the one thing I always turn to is the gibson, which is a Belvedere vodka martini with cocktail onions. That’s my go-to drink.

Has vodka always been your spirit of choice? Yes, it has actually. I’m a big fan of the history of vodka and the struggle that the spirit has gone through over the years, in particular how it’s gone from being a peasant’s drink to becoming the world’s number one spirit. That’s something that I’ve always been fascinated by.

How did you get your start in the business? I was bartending throughout my university career, and once I graduated I got back into it and found quite by accident that I wasn’t very good at it. I realized I needed to improve my skills, so I entered a cocktail competition to try to understand a little bit more about how the creative bartenders worked, but also to earn a reputation and a name for myself in the industry. After losing spectacularly a few times, I did what I needed to do to improve my skills and won a pretty big national competition in the UK. That brought me to the attention of a Polish vodka company. Then Moët Hennessy approached me to do training for them on their newly acquired Belvedere Vodka. After that, I recognized that they actually needed somebody within their business to work as an ambassador for the brand, so I asked them if I could have that role.

What exactly does a Vodka Ambassador do? I’ve been the ambassador for about six years now, but my role has developed to encompass more responsibility as the International Communications Manager. Initially, my role was to promote the brand and educate bartenders, and now it’s to do that and also to be the face of the brand in terms of press and media, as well as developing the new products that we launch. I’m now responsible for the creation of the new Belvederes and responsible for all of the new mixology for the brand.

Who do you admire in the hospitality industry? I think the person I most admire is the gentleman that really took me under his wing and trained me, and that’s Dick Bradsell. He’s a drink and cocktail guru, responsible for many of the contemporary classic cocktails that we enjoy today. He was my first real mentor. Then there are people like Henry Besant, one of the founders of the Worldwide Cocktail Club. But to be honest, I’m really inspired every day by the bartenders I meet all over the world who have such a sense of creativity and innovation in our industry, and also a sense of real sharing and hospitality. One idea can be shared and improved and developed by so many, so we’re always pleased to share our ideas rather than keep them to ourselves.

What’s one positive trend that you see in the industry? For a while now we’ve been seeing a real resurgence of the classic cocktail. I think especially with the economy, what we’re seeing is a return to cocktails that have feel-good associations, nothing too over-the-top or glamorous—very simple recipes such as the gimlet, or even the seabreeze—easy-to-execute cocktails that you can even do at home.

What is your favorite trendy cocktail? I really love a twist on the cosmopolitan, with pomegranate or berry juice or just a more refreshing version of the cosmopolitan with citrus. Grapefruit and other citrus mixed with Belvedere Orange is fantastic. Anything that’s slightly off the wall or unusual.

What ingredients would we always find in your bar at home? Always ginger beer. I can’t live without ginger beer. It really adds character to very typical drinks. You can mix it with vodka, lime, and some angostura bitters, and it makes a fantastic long drink that is really great with black currant or raspberries. It just adds a really lovely depth and complexity to simple drinks. I’m always experimenting with ginger beer and angostura bitters. Those two ingredients are my staples.

What is your guiltiest pleasure? I adore pina coladas. That’s something I would have on holiday as a treat.

What are your favorite cocktails bars in New York and London? I’m loving the very small, intimate bars like Little Branch and Death & Co. Some of the bartenders in these places are so experienced, so creative, and they’re a real joy to spend time. It’s fantastic for me to come to New York and visit some of these places because it gives me real inspiration. Back in London, I would say Londsdale for great cocktails and PortoBello Star, which is really sweet, very small, intimate cocktail bar. I think that London—apart from Londsdale—is following the trend of the speakeasy-style bar also.

What are you doing tonight? I’m still a bit jet-lagged, but I’ll be trawling the bars, probably ending up in PDT or Little Branch.

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