People

Catching up with Dame Hall of Fame's Claire Smith-Warner

From law student to Belvedere Vodka Brand Ambassador, Smith-Warner shares the story of her unusual career path.
Tales seminar
Photo: Jennifer Mitchell Photography.

Every year, Tales of the Cocktail inducts hardworking women of the spirits and cocktail industries into the Dame Hall of Fame to celebrate their contributions to the industry. Each of these women has their own story: from their starts, to their stumbles, and finally, to their successes. In this series, Tales co-founder Ann Tuennerman highlights some of the past Dame Hall of Fame recipients, and explores the path that led them to where they are today. Here, Claire Smith-Warner, brand ambassador for Belvedere Vodka, is spotlighted.

Where were you born and raised?

London.

What attracted you to enter the cocktail/spirits industry in the first place?

I worked in bars throughout my university days and really enjoyed the creativity that cocktails and spirits worlds encouraged. Also, I was studying a really boring topic at uni, so hospitality was a much-welcomed opportunity to engage with funny, creative and interesting people.

Was it planned, or was it a temporary gig that evolved into a career?

Totally unplanned and started out as a temporary gig. In fact, my Dad still asks when I'm going to get a "proper job." (*rolls eyes*)

What and where was your first job in the industry?

I ran one of Nottingham's first cocktail bars. Within a week of joining, the GM was fired and I had to learn about cocktails to get us open on time. It was this baptism of fire that propelled me to enter cocktail competitions; I was desperate to make sure I was actually making cocktails in the right way!

Was there a moment when you decided that the cocktail/spirits industry would be your career path?

Yes, I remember it very clearly. I had won the 'Battle of the Giants' competition which pitted London bartenders against the rest of the UK. I hadn't been bartending for very long, and after winning I went outside for a breath of fresh air and saw a mobile phone advert which said "the time is now." I was convinced it was a sign and decided to pursue a career in the spirits industry. The rest is history!

As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry, what did you find the most rewarding and the most challenging?

I personally have found the industry to be a very supportive and collaborative one, and I love seeing how it has become increasingly more diverse. For me, perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the industry would be a lack of a clear career path, which can cause some challenges as you progress throughout your career. That being said, this industry is nothing but supportive, so I would encourage anyone who is looking for advice or support to simply ask (I'm always happy to help if I can!)

Was your family supportive of your decision?

Ha!

I was studying to be a barrister when I made the switch and both of my parents are virtually non-drinkers, so I did have some explaining to do. As I said earlier, my Dad still questions what I do but my Mum is happy so long as I am happy. At my wedding, she made a speech about how wonderful she felt this choice had been for me, and how happy she was to meet my "extended family," which I'm pretty sure she would not have been able to say if I'd stuck with law!

woman speaking at a podium Claire Smith-Warner talks the truth about sugar in a previous Tales seminar.

How has the role of women in the cocktail/spirits industry changed since you first joined it?

When I first joined, I was somewhat of an anomaly. There were some incredible female bartenders, however, much of the press was focused on our male counterparts. I certainly see that this has become a little more tipped in our favour, and happily women in the industry are increasingly more visible. Being visible really matters, and not just for women.

For a woman who wants to pursue a career in this industry, what top 3 tips would you offer?

  1. Take care of your health. It is a demanding industry and all too easy to let your health slide as you prioritize work. Try to find a happy balance!
  2. Find mentors! There are so many inspiring (and busy!) people in the industry, so if you find someone who can help you forge your career path, grab them with both hands.
  3. Say yes to things that are outside of your comfort zone. It's the best place to learn!

How did you first learn about Tales of the Cocktail?

I think it was around the time that molecular mixology was really having a "moment." I was asked to present alongside Eben Klemm and Eben Freeman. It was another baptism of fire!

Were there any challenges you had to overcome to attend Tales for the first time (financial, logistical, etc.)?

I have been lucky enough to have been brought to Tales by Belvedere Vodka.

Kindly describe your first Tales experience and what it meant to you.

Overwhelming, exhausting, uplifting, petrifying, hot... Looking back, I really wanted to meet everyone, talk to everyone, attend every seminar, go to every party, and absorb everything. I still feel the same, although I now try to get a bit more sleep!

How did you first hear about the Dame Hall of Fame?

I've followed the DHoF since its inception.

Were any of its past inductees your mentors or role models?

Can I say all of them?! In particular though, Pamela Wiznitzer doesn't cease to amaze me with her energy and passion. Also, I've been really lucky to have spent some time with Laura Cullen who is an endless source of knowledge and support. Most recently I have had the pleasure to work with Audrey Saunders who also deserves her reputation as an incredible mentor!

What was it like to be inducted into the Dame Hall of Fame at Tales?

I was extremely honoured to have been recognised in this way.

How has it energized your career, and what opportunities have flowed as a result?

In countless ways. Just to be recognised was a great privilege and then to share the spotlight with Pamela, Melanie, Anu, and Kate was incredible. The contacts I have made as a result of the inclusion in the DHoF have been rich and varied.

Kindly describe any key professional relationships that were formed through your induction.

Fortunately I already knew and was very fond of many of my fellow inductees, however, I have been really grateful for Pamela's friendship since we were inducted together back in 2015.

Ann Tuennerman Founder of Tales of the Cocktail, Ann Tuennerman is a serial entrepreneur focused on hospitality.

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