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Fernanda is mixing things up

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Cocktail queen: Fernanda Neves learnt from some of the best mixologists in the US after stints working in famed Miami bars. She says she likes putting twists on classic drinks (Photographs by Akil Simmons)

In a blind taste test, Fernanda Neves can pick out her favourite vodka from a batch of 20. But the Stolichnaya brand ambassador struggles in communicating the exact nuances that set the similar spirits apart.

“They don’t like me to use this word but they are more feminine,” she says of the New World versions that rival her Old World favourite, Stoli Elit.

“They’re a little more on the sweet side, a little softer ... a little more feminine.”

Born and raised in Brazil, Ms Neves and her family moved to Miami 15 years ago.

It was while getting her marketing degree that she fell into the world of spirits, bartending through college to pay the bills.

Ms Neves landed jobs at big-name bars in the W Hotel and the Fontainebleau.

“That’s how I got in touch with the whole mixology movement coming down from New York to Miami,” she said.

“I was very fortunate to have a job at the W, where the biggest mixologist in Miami came out of.

“I worked with the owners of Broken Shaker. They won No 1 bar in Miami and Chicago, so I learnt a lot from them. Through them I connected to John Lermayer, a big mixologist that came from New York. He owns a bar called Sweet Liberty, which just won the No 1 bar in the United States.

“I got experience from all those guys. They’re legends of mixology in the US.”

After graduating from Florida International University, she learnt of a position at Stoli that targeted the Latin American and Caribbean markets.

“At the time I was already writing a few cocktail menus and recipes, doing competitions and some consulting on the side,” she said. “I fit right in to the position.”

It was the perfect post for the brand ambassador who speaks fluent Portuguese, English and Spanish. The 29-year-old grew up in Curitiba, a town just south of Sao Paulo.

Her position has taken her all over — from Chile to St Maarten, Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic, St Thomas, St John, Tortola and St Croix. It has even landed her back home in Brazil, where the rest of her family has now returned.

She has not yet travelled to Russia, the home of Stolichnaya, or as far as the liquor itself, which is famed to be the first and only vodka on the moon. “Fun fact of the day,” she laughed.

This is her first time in Bermuda, working with the spirit’s new distributors, Pitt & Co.

“I like grabbing the classics and adding a little twist depending on the region and the tools that I have available,” she said.

“For example, the classic gimlet, which is vodka, lime juice and a little bit of simple syrup, I’d maybe add egg whites to change the consistency or add a little foam, put a little bitters on it, do a rosemary garnish. Reinventing the classics — that’s what I like to do.

“It’s because I come from a tropical country, but I prefer refreshing cocktails like a Moscow Mule,” she said of the Dark and Stormy’s Slavic cousin.

Right now she is plugging Stoli Elit.

“It’s the highest-rated white spirit in the world between all the white tequilas, all the gins, all the vodkas, the white whiskies, so it’s a big deal for us,” she said. “When Russians first started, back when they used to put the barrels outside in extreme weather, the vodka gets more viscous, making it easier to separate the impurities. So we do the same, but with the latest technology.

“It’s like a steak. You have the filet mignon and you cut all the nerves and the fat out and you only keep the best, the centre. The filet mignon, that’s the alpha spirit. We cut what’s distilled before a certain temperature and what’s distilled after a certain temperature — you call it the heads and the tails — we cut that out and throw it away.

“Some people distil it again and throw it in the mix. That’s poison. If you have a bad hangover, that’s why.”

Her training involved blind tastings of many different vodkas, a lesson she credits for her expanding palate.

“Before that, even working as a bartender, I always had the impression that vodkas were all the same or that a better vodka was one you couldn’t taste in a cocktail. That’s a misconception,” she said. “After training I understand that the raw ingredients are crucial for the end material.

“I’m able to pick out a New World-style from an Old World-style vodka. If you put 20 vodkas in front of me, I can always pick out Elit. It’s a matter of preference. Us Latins are not used to tasting vodka the way we’re used to tasting wine and pairing it with food.

“The way it’s traditionally tasted in Russia and Poland, they taste it neat. They can tell the difference, whether it’s made from grapes or wheat and they have their preferences.”

Fernanda Neves (Photograph by Nadia Hall)
Fernanda Neves (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Taste the difference: Fernanda Neves can pick out her favourite vodka in a blind taste test