WHEN Claire Smith graduated from law school in Nottingham Trent, it seemed natural that she would become a barrister. Rather than being called to the bar as expected, she went behind it instead - bar counter that is - mixing drinks for a living.
Ms Smith: "In Belvedere you can taste the rye in it because it is made out of rye and that is what creates Belvedere's character'
'Even when I was at school, I was already organising events and parties, so I just kind of fell into that industry,' says the 29-year-old international brand ambassador for Belvedere vodka who was in town for the Belvedere bartending competition.
'My father told me: 'I can't believe you're giving up a job as a lawyer to be a bartender, it's ridiculous!' But, I hated law so there was no way I was going to become a lawyer.'
It also did not help that she was a woman trying to break into what was essentially an old boy's club. She says: 'There were a lot of doubts about my capabilities when I first started. The alcohol and cocktailing world is very much a man's world after all.
'Even when I won competitions, there were those that said: 'She must have won only because she's a woman, and blonde', but I never gave up because it is not in my nature to do so. I just worked harder to prove myself.'
In particular, she remembers one time when she was in Scotland and some other male bartenders mixed up her vodkas to test her when she went to the bathroom. 'They wanted to see if I knew what I was doing, if I actually knew about vodka. It was good though, because when I got it right, it proved to them that I wasn't just a novelty act - a female mixologist with blonde hair - I actually knew my stuff,' she adds with a laugh.
But, that was all in the past. These days, Ms Smith is one of the most successful young mixologists in the world, having won a number of illustrious cocktail competitions including the 'Battle of the Giants', the United Kingdom's largest cocktail competition run by Polish vodka Wyborowa.
The win led to invitations for Ms Smith to become the brand ambassador for several vodka brands before she eventually joined Moet Hennessy in 2003 as the UK brand ambassador for the then newly-launched Belvedere Vodka - a premium Polish rye vodka. She is now Belvedere's international brand ambassador in charge of overseeing training programmes for bartending professionals and promoting vodka awareness.
And it is not hard to understand why she is so successful. She is pretty, personable, and clearly strong enough to survive in a predominantly male environment, not to mention the fact that she obviously understands vodka very well. Vodka is her favourite alcohol because of its 'honesty'.
'It is pure and you can't lie about its contents as you can taste exactly what a particular vodka is made of,' she says. 'For example, in Belvedere you can taste the rye in it because it is made out of rye and that is what creates Belvedere's character.'
All in, she has done remarkably well for someone who taught herself the cocktailing craft and a woman no less, especially given that the UK cocktail culture is one of the most advanced in the world. She says: 'The cocktail culture in the UK is experiencing a renaissance of the classic drinks at the moment. This is as opposed to Singapore where fresh fruit cocktails are very popular, a trend that has already passed in the UK.'
She concedes though, that nights out in the UK tend to be a lot more pretentious as compared to Singapore. 'It's all about how much you spend in the UK. If one table buys a bottle of Belvedere, the next table buys a bottle of Dom Perignon, and then the next table buys a bottle of Belvedere and a bottle of Dom Perignon, ' she says wryly. 'There are places where you can't even get a table without buying both a magnum bottle of Belvedere and a magnum bottle of Dom Perignon. It's all about the amount of money you have and are willing to spend.'
She adds: 'People in the UK go out to see and be seen, so they must drink 'cool' alcohol and must dance in a cool way. It takes a bit of the fun out of going out, I think, whereas I went out the other day in Singapore and I had a great time just acting and dancing crazily.'