Yesterday was a combination of the most stressful, difficult, exciting and enjoyable days I have ever had.
Having already been so massively proud of myself for making the cut into the top 50 bartenders in the UK at the moment, the Brand Ambassadors at Diageo had the hard task of whittling us down to just 5. It’s no easy task and so they had to come up with some pretty brilliant ways to make the finest stand out of what was already a pretty amazing crowd.
The 50 bartenders were split into 4 groups and were given 3 challange a for the day.
Performing under pressure was my first round. 3 cocktails, 3 minutes and 3 go pro cameras. Not only was our every move watched by Tim “Tanqueray Tim” Homeward and last years UK winner James Fowler, it was broadcast via a series of TV’s to everyone else in the room via some pretty awkward angles. The whole thing was also filmed for our own viewing pleasure in a few days when USBs arrive with the footage.
It was a round that every bartender had practised and memorised over the coming weeks but nothing could prepare you for the nerves. I was last of my group and the only female so it was intimidating.
I sat and watched as people got it right and wrong. Some didn’t finish drinks, some didn’t talk and one guy even brought his own backing music, although he did go on to win so it maybe an idea worth stealing for future competitions.
Then comes my turn, I’m handed the box, I took my heels off as I’m not risking falling flat on my face and panicked. The lid comes off and you have a minute to prep. Which goes by so quickly. I’ve barely got the bottles in the speed rail, the glasses on the bar and figured out where the Prossecco is before I’m being told times up.
Then there’s a pause. I realise the bitters are out of reach for my tiny arms so as they start the claxon I dive for them and use them first. I wait for the complimentary and confidence boosting cheer to die down before I make a joke of saving the best till last.
I try to mumble a few opinions on Bulliet Rye in Sazeracs before I even realise that my arms have already started making another cocktail! Come on brain, the bodies beating you.
Though now a minutes gone and I’ve had enough time to notice that the camera which is supposed to be filming my hands has not taken my 5 foot 2 inch stature into account and is focusing a bit more on my breast then I would have liked.
I’ve also suddenly got the shakes and have started spilling booze, I make a joke about when I do stuff to make my hands stop shaking my legs wobble but I don’t notice if anyone laughs or not over the 2 minute warning.
Time to shake, I’m bang on schedual from my practise runs to finish on time. The usual round of applause for the shake soon dies down when I start pouring, 30 seconds called. My brain at this point is just making my mouth say things on subjects which I now have no recollection of but my bodies in autopilot and minus a small Prossecco spillage on my Old Cuban my drinks are literally being placed in the bar as the time is called. Phew! I did it.
I even wander over to the judges to ask how I did as we all leave and even though their lips are sealed I managed to steal a sip of my sazerac. Mmmm.
After that we had the bourbon round. An amazing lecture by Jake Burger, the owner of Portabello Star, a cocktail bar on Portabello road who also distill their own Portabello Road Gin. He is a wealth of knowledge on the history of the “Holy Trinity” of bourbon cocktails, the Julep, the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned.
Not only did he scour books for original recipes as far back as 1750 he also disproved some of the oldest cocktailing myths surrounding the heavenly drinks. Stories such as the Manhattan having been created in New York for Jenny Jerome even though she would have been in Europe giving birth to Winston Churchhill. Readings from Hunter S. Thompson’s The Kentucky Derby is Decadant and Depraved. Even mentioning the infamous way Veronica Corningstone orders her Manhattan in The Anchorman, one which I’m glad to say I already knew and was very pleased when it came up on the exam.
The exam and tasting notes of Bulliet Bourbon and Rye were the marked part of this section. Questions on Distillation Processes, History, Legislation and the mini lecture we had just been given. It was actually the calmest of the marked rounds and the most prepared one but upon exit I definitely wished I had brushed up on my geography more.
The 3rd part of our day was the unmarked Whisky tasting and guest relation talk by the amazing double act that is Colin Dunn, Diageo Ambassador for Malt Whisky and Alessandro Palazzi, longstanding bartender at Dukes bar, and when i say long standing I mean it. He started bartending in 1975! Let alone was I not born yet my parents would have only just been legal drinking age.
This was the best fun of the day and not just because Alessandro said I was perfect. He talked about how to engage with customers and how every bartender should be diplomatic, acrobatic and charismatic.
Colin had us all drinking Johnny Walker Blue Label in his “Front Room” although his tasting technique is a little different. Holding Whisky in your mouth for a whole minute is no mean feat and unlike the first round suddenly a minute seemed forever. At about 15 seconds in my eyes watered and my tongue burnt but at the 20 second mark the alcohol subsided to reveal a sweet and fruity side to the Whisky which I’d never seen before. A trick I’m certainly going to steal for future use.
Now for the final round the one I had been dreading but also secretly intrigued by, Deconsruct/Reconstruct.
I can easily say this was the most challenging thing I have experienced since I left school and nothing could have prepared me for it.
20 bottles of unknown liquid, died green, and a single bottle we had to recreate. It sounds easy, pick the one of 4 from each category, blend them together with Zacapa and name the resulting cocktail with a hundred word description. All I can say is that it was harder then it sounded.
Liquids that were either so salty or bitter that it ruined you palate before you’d even tasted all the bottles. Bottles not full enough to test your measurements via trial and error although there wasn’t enough time for that either. Cross contamination was a pretty big issue due to lack of tasting equipment and lack of space was a pain, trying to stop the bottles from mixing up.
Even with all these teething problems (this was the first time something like this was ever done) I can say it was by far the best way to test us to our limit.
Looking back on it now it may have been hard and challenging but isn’t that the point of the day, to separate the Creme de la Creme from a group of talented and passionate people.
So after a gruelling yet enjoyable day who came out on top. Well unfortunately not me. The first 5 into the UK final are.
Jamie Jones from No Fixed Abode Consultancy and Training, Manchester.
Jon Hughes, Bar Manager at Bramble, Edinburg.
Tim Laferla, Bar Manager at Red Bar, Bam-bou, London.
Luca Corradini, American Bar at The Savoy, London.
Kyle John Wilkinson, Blind Pig/ Social Eating House, London.
Congratulations to all Semi Finalists and especially to the 5 above.
Burst 2 entry application starts 20th March at www.theworldclassclub.com
Spirits for competing with are Tanqueray 10, Ketal One, Ciroc and the Don Julio Range.