Claire Smith, head of spirit creation & mixology for Moët Hennessy’s Belvedere Vodka, came to the U.S. in 2009 to work on Belvedere after working in the UK for the same brand. Now that brand ambassadors are everywhere in the U.S., it seemed a good time to check in with Smith about the differences in working with American and UK bartenders, and the future of the vodka business.
NCB Mix: You’re now working with American bartenders as a brand representative after some time doing the same in the UK. What are the main differences you see, in general, between the two groups?
Claire Smith: First, let’s start with the similarities. Both the U.S. and UK ‘serious’ bartender set share a deep and passionate love of their craft. It is especially exciting to see areas outside of the London/New York regions developing increasingly strong cocktail cultures. Examples [in the UK] would include Edinburgh, Leeds and Glasgow, while in the U.S., Boston, L.A. and Miami are all burgeoning cocktail hotspots, created by passionate bartenders who wanted to generate a scene of their own. It’s very exciting to witness.
Now for the differences: I do believe there are a few fundamental distinctions between the two groups of bartenders, and while it is always a challenge to generalize, the differences seem to be acknowledged on both sides of the Atlantic:
1) Freedom of expression. While this is a firmly upheld constitutional right in the U.S, ironically the UK bartenders tend to run a little freer and wilder with their cocktail creations. In contrast, the U.S. bartender is very much grounded in history and provenance of the drinks they create and, as a consequence, we tend to see a lot more reworking of Jerry Thomas’ revered creations in the U.S. and more creative license being exercised in the UK. That being said, of course there are new and innovative cocktails being created in the U.S. just as much as there are studious applications of Thomas’ recipes in the UK, but in general terms the former feels confident and comfortable working with historical references and breathes new meaning into them, while the latter will feel just as comfortable using the references as a springboard for creativity.
2) Dress sense. Hands down, U.S. bartenders win, although there is something of a uniformity of fashion when you get into the upper echelons of bartender in the U.S. Facial hair, braces and dapper little suits all seem to feature highly in a U.S. bartender’s wardrobe and while there are fewer female bartenders, their look is always extremely polished. There is generally a more relaxed approach to dressing for your job in the UK. While bars such as London’s Connaught Hotel excel in their presentation of a team, overall the British bartender is simply more relaxed wearing jeans and a T-shirt, perhaps again reflecting their less conventional approach to cocktailing.
3) Fun. For some reason there seems to be a lot more fun and silliness in a UK bar than I tend to find in a U.S. cocktail bar. There is something of a seriousness or reverence of the cocktail in the U.S. that you rarely find in the UK. At bars such as Mahiki, Portobello Star and Callooh Callay — all very successful — their grounding is in entertainment while still managing to deliver sublime drinks. But perhaps I just haven’t found the silly, fun stuff here yet. All suggestions welcomed!
NCB Mix: What is the biggest challenge for you working in the U.S.?
Smith: The sheer size of the U.S. I’m not sure it ever really became obvious to me, until I moved here, how vast a country this is. The U.S. is essentially 50 mini countries in their own right, if you consider cultural and consumption differences as well as cocktail relevance and communication of a brand message. Fortunately, however, Belvedere is enjoyed all over the U.S., so there is always a commonality wherever I visit, but also there is always a slightly different approach to communication or focus depending on where one is, which is both refreshing and a little daunting at the same time.
NCB Mix: What has surprised you about working with U.S. bartenders?
Smith: Their generosity and openness. I spent seven years building a great network of fabulous bartenders and friends in Europe and left them in order to start all over again in the U.S. In a way, it has felt a little easier to start all over here because the majority of bartenders I have met have been gracious and willing to hear me out. Despite the many bars that restrict entry or make you wait outside in the cold or pouring rain, the hostility you may feel outside a bar or club is immediately reversed once you get in and start chatting with U.S. bartenders. Most want to share their craft with all they meet, and the door restrictions are there to permit dialogue and interaction, something you recognize when you can actually have a conversation with a bartender.
NCB Mix: Outside the major markets, how do you view the level of American bartender skill?
Smith: Overall very good; in some places excellent. It would be great to see more of a consistent delivery across mid-tier bars and restaurants, but it is our responsibility as brand ambassadors to continue to inspire and innovate in order to raise the bar through education and communication. In this way we constantly help develop and improve budding bartenders and help provide a fertile breeding ground for exceptional talent to grow and advance.
NCB Mix: In some parts of the bartender community, there’s been a vodka backlash, with some of the more cutting-edge bars doing without. How do you overcome that attitude when working with Belvedere, your brand?
Smith: Belvedere is always a quality choice, and while it is true that a very small number of bars have decided to do without vodka for the short term, in the long term this only benefits a brand such a Belvedere that stands for heritage, consistent quality and provenance. The vodka backlash has allowed bars to consolidate their vodka offering and, as such, they are choosing to be more particular about the brands they carry, preferring to move away from overly marketed or gimmicky brands to vodkas that represent tradition and authenticity. While of course I don’t want to encourage a backlash per se, it has been interesting to note that Belvedere is often the vodka of choice for those bartenders who claim not to drink vodka. I think this has as much to do with our provenance, heritage and flavor delivery than whether or not vodka is currently ‘in’ or ‘out.’
NCB Mix: All the media focus is on the high-end mixologist, but vodka is traditionally more popular at the nightclub side of the business, where volume is important. Do you work much there and, if so, what sort of insights do you focus on there?
Smith: As with most things in life, it is always essential to maintain the optimum balance. Belvedere is fortunate to have relevance and credibility in both the nightclub and cocktail bar environment. In terms of how our focus differs in the nightclub environment, Belvedere is seen to constantly provide an excellent drinking experience and so we work hard to maximize this through education and mixer recommendation. We do not endorse energy drinks, for instance, with our bottle service, and while we acknowledge this is a popular mixer choice, we love to see Belvedere served with fresh juices and premium mixers such as Fever Tree sodas. These really enhance the positive characteristics of Belvedere rather than overshadow it, and so even though Belvedere is being consumed in a different environment than a cocktail bar or lounge, the experience should still essentially be one of quality.
NCB Mix: Your current favorite cocktail?
Smith: The Pickled Gibson
2 ounces Belvedere Intense
3 cocktail onions, muddled and shaken with Belvedere over ice.
Double strain into a chilled Martini glass and garnish with an atomizer of sea salt water.
P.S.: Only drink if your date is drinking one also!