I’m not generally good at interviews, as most of my conversations seem to take place over a drink or three, and I generally forget to take notes or press the record button. That being said there are a few people in the drinks industry who truly inspire me, so I’ve decided from time-to-time I should share their stories on b&t. One character whom I find remarkable is a good friend of b&t, Claire Smith, of Belvedere Vodka.
If you’ve been lucky enough to spend any time around Claire, then you’ll now that she’s a pretty disarming character; she’s personable, friendly, quick to laugh and quick to drink… basically all the qualities you’d expect from someone whose role includes, (but is not limited to) being the Brand Ambassador for one of the world’s leading super-premium vodkas. What you might not have realised at first glance, is that there’s a lot more to what she does than meets the eye.
For a start, Claire became a Brand Ambassador before you and I really knew what the term meant and she took this role and turned it into something far reaching, both in terms of influencing the company she works for and influencing the way we drink vodka. Most importantly though, she seems to have avoided gaining an ego; after 10 very successful years with Belvedere, she’s just as likely to be found telling rude stories in a dive bar, as sipping a vodka martini in a five star hotel.
I wanted to know more about the secret of her success, so at a civilized hour, over coffee instead of cocktails, and with my note pad at the ready, we met up to talk Vodka.
DP – So without wanting to imply that you’re knocking on in years, you’ve been doing this Brand Ambassador thing for a while now haven’t you?
CS – You cheeky sod! I suppose it’s true though, it’s been the best part of ten years since I started with Moet-Hennessy, looking after Belvedere Vodka in the UK. When I joined, the company was very much focused on Champagne and Cognac, which of course it still is to an extent, but hopefully over time, I’ve helped to open their eyes to another aspect of the industry too. I came to Belvedere straight from a cocktail bartending background, so I think it’s fair to say that I brought a different skill set and way of looking at things to the company.
For me it was a really exciting but nerve-wracking time; you have to realise that in 2003 there really weren’t any ‘Brand Ambassadors’, in fact the only person that I know who’s been doing this as long as me is Simon Ford, so everything I did was really new and unproven. I was brought into the team to try to get people talking about vodka and to start educating them about a category that up until then, was only known for its perceived lack of flavour, aroma and colour. In those early days my focus was really on getting bartenders excited about vodka and to trying to help people to experience it as more than just a neutral spirit.
DP – Your role now is much more developed than simply that of a Brand Ambassador though, so how did you get to where you are today?
CS – Really it’s been a case of being in the right place at the right time, combined with a willingness to have a go at doing something new. As my role with Moet Hennessey grew, I was asked by Maison Belvedere to go and work directly for the brand instead of the parent company, but at first I wasn’t sure, so I turned them down. It wasn’t long before I got a call from the President of Moet Hennessey who made it clear that I should really have said yes, so I took a bit of a step into the unknown. It turned out to be the best move I ever made.
I was brought in to help work on a project to develop a new language to describe vodka, and I soon realised that the whole process of experiencing Belvedere was about more than just taste and aroma. The manner in which we talked about vodka, both internally and externally, needed to evolve to describe all aspects of the vodka experience, from flavour and aroma to mouth-feel and after taste. I was instrumental in making sure that we were using this same language in all markets around the world.
Taking that experience and knowledge of vodka and finding the right way to impart it to bartenders and consumers alike is still a huge part of what I do today. I guess that project was the foundation, but it was really when I got involved with new flavour variants that my role changed significantly.
DP – I know you’re quite heavily involved with the new product development side of things for Belvedere, which is pretty unusual for a brand person, so how on earth did you make that leap?
CS – well I guess this is the ‘right place, right time’ bit of my story. You see in 2008 we decided that the moment was right to add a new flavour to the range, but our ‘flavourist’ at the time had decided to retire. Without really thinking about the implications, I said that I could do it! When I think back on it now, it was one of those moments where you hear the words come out, and think ‘oh my God, did I just say that?’.
I worked with the production team to understand exactly how we make our flavoured vodkas, and, as it’s a process that involves all natural ingredients, it felt very similar to making cocktails. I decided to approach it a bit like creating a new drink, so once we’d settled on black raspberry as our flavour, I worked on creating a balanced and complex flavour profile. Just as with a cocktail, it’s not all about the main ingredient, it’s also about the supporting flavours and aromas that help to create a fuller flavour profile too. Of course making it on such a huge scale went well beyond any experience I’d ever had before, but it was really exciting to see the project through from concept to bottled product.
The fact that we use all natural ingredients in our flavoured range sets us apart from other vodka brands, but it’s not always the easiest process. Some ingredients don’t work as well as others, some change seasonally; there are lots of factors to consider. I still taste our range though and think that the ‘100% natural ingredient’ approach gives us such vibrant flavours, which makes all the hard work worth it. The idea is simple: when you taste a Belvedere product, you won’t get any chemical or synthetic flavours, just natural ones.
DP – So what do you think of all these unusual sickly flavoured vodkas that seem to be launching at the moment? Does the world need marshmallow vodka, or candy floss and skittle flavours?
CS – Haha, I’d better be tactful in answering that! Let’s just say that those products aren’t what I enjoy drinking, and they’re certainly not a good fit for a super-premium brand such as Belvedere. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for them in the market, and if that’s what some people want, that’s ok. What’s most important to me is that when anyone tastes a Belvedere product, they can immediately experience the superior quality.
There’s plenty of room in the market for all styles of vodka, but don’t expect a peanut butter and jelly Belvedere anytime soon!
DP – Am I right in thinking that you’re still involved with creating new flavours though?
CS – Absolutely, in fact after making Black Raspberry I was given the rather grand job title, ‘Head of Spirit Creation’ so that’s still one big aspect of my role with Belvedere. I still think like a bartender when I’m working on new flavours, so it just feels like an extension of what I’ve always loved doing.
It’s not all about the flavoured extensions to our range though; in the last couple of years I’ve been able to help introduce Belvedere Intense and Unfiltered, both of which have helped us to demonstrate that Vodka can, and in fact should, have character! I’ve been playing around with all sorts of different products that may never see the light of day, but you never know what might come from trying new things.
DP – So it sounds like you’re still doing some of the things you’ve always done for the brand then, like helping to get the message out there about good vodka?
CS – Absolutely! While my job title doesn’t say ‘ambassador’ in it anymore, I’m still very much involved in trying to spread the word about great vodka. I would say that one of the best things though, is that I’ve been able to help bring new people into Belvedere, to engage a whole new generation of bartenders and consumers. I think if it had just been me all this time, people would be sick of hearing from me!
Seriously though, it’s so important to me to bring on new Brand Ambassadors as they in turn bring fresh ideas and energy into Belvedere. I’d hate to be out there saying the same things again and again, year after year, and I’m pretty sure bartenders wouldn’t still be reacting to it. Belvedere has really embraced the idea of bringing in fresh blood, and making sure that our people on the front line can relate to bartenders and understand what’s happening in their world today. Bartending has moved on a lot since I was behind the bar full-time, so it’s only right that the people in charge of talking to bartenders have more recent experience than me, and bring new ideas with them.
I know you were with us Dan a couple of years back when we held our competition to find a new Global Brand Ambassador; the winner, Ali (Dedianko) has been such a great addition to our team. There’s a new generation coming through now and part of my role is to help encourage and develop that talent.
God I’m beginning to sound like an old timer now!
DP – That’s a pretty inspiring story, going from bartender to being involved with a brand on a global level and creating new products along the way.
CS – I don’t really think of it that way, it’s just a job that I love doing, which has grown and developed as I’ve gone along with it. I didn’t plan this or anything, but I think there are opportunities out there for everyone if you’re open to them, and willing to take a chance too. I’ve gotten to where I am by being vocal enough to chime in and being willing enough to have a go at new things, but it helps when you love your brand and love your job.
I guess that’s the key really, and it’s no different than bartending; you can only be a good bartender if you love the job, and the same is true of representing a brand. The rest of it is down to you to make happen; look at what Ali has done in winning the role and making it her own, that’s just as inspirational really.
DP – So what’s next for you?
CS – well there’s still so much to do with Belvedere in terms of getting our message out to a wider audience, and I guess part of my role now is to help new people to be part of that journey. I’ll still be involved in new products too of course, but really I want to help make sure that wherever you are in the world, if someone is talking about Belvedere, they’re doing it with passion!
On a personal note I’d like to thank Claire for her time. I’m always inspired by people who demonstrate that it’s possible to do more than just go with the flow, and Claire is living proof that a person really can go from making drinks to building brands and creating new products. I’ll raise a Ms. Smith cocktail to her inspirational story!
60ml Belvedere Unfiltered
15ml lemon juice
15ml Merlet crème de peche
2 dashes orange bitters
1 sprig of oregano
A good grind or three of black pepper
Shake all ingredients with cubed ice and fine strain into a chilled coupe, garnish with a sprig of oregano and an orange twist (serving it in the snow is optional).