I'm going to freely admit I've arrived quite late to the World Class party and I’m feeling a little like I’m playing catch-up right now. But it’s a difficult phenomenon to ignore, as over the last few years Diageo's World Class Bartender Competition has proved itself to be the ultimate prize in terms of scope, scale and desirability.
Other competitions have prize money and destinations*
, but with Diageo actively looking to further advance their winner’s notoriety and career (as they become a World Class judge and mentor, with a feature in GQ magazine lined up as well) the overall reward is a long term ‘leg-up’ for those who’ve the desire to make the most of it. Also worth noting is that the bar they work in will also benefit from the PR and promotional support of working with the UK World Class Bartender of the Year, but will also be awarded a one-off £10,000 marketing fund to create their own, exclusive World Class ritual serve. So it really does seem to be the biggest of draws, justifying the almost masochistic nature of dragging yourself across the proverbial coals. Of course, no one is forced to enter, so does it also offer a strangely satisfying and powerful desire to the world’s best bartenders? Maybe it’s an irresistible draw to a subset of bartenders that are far more alpha (fe)male than I previously gave them credit for.
*South Africa awaits the global finalists this September!
For whatever reason, the Burst 2 semi-finals that I’ve just been privileged to attend, saw fifty top class bartenders from across the UK undertake a number of tests that stretched them mentally in a sensory way, as well as in a written exam and then physically in the Pressure Under Performance round.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the first Burst (or semi-final) – apparently the sensory test based around Ron Zacapa was a toughie. This time the ‘revised’ Don Julio Tequila test was apparently a little more attainable and actually quite fun as I managed to sneak in and test myself (I didn’t score well enough to be completely happy though). Couple this with interesting and thought provoking presentations on sensory perception as far as far as the accompanying sound can engender. The Performance under Pressure round is probably self-explanatory – just that – three cocktails, a tight time limit and the requirement of both quality and an appropriate level of ‘chat’ to impress the judges.
Out of all this excitement, five bartenders proved themselves worthy to join the five from Burst 1, to head to the UK finals in sunny Scotland next month**. Once there, who knows what challenges await? I’m used to rum-focused cocktail bartender competitions, but World Class is based around the full Reserve Brands portfolio – namely Johnnie Walker, Circo, Ketel One, Tanqueray, Zacapa, and Don Julio – so the scope is so much wider and I guess so much more challenging. Can’t wait to see what comes next.
**The Diageo Reserve World Class UK Final will take place in Drummir Castle - Diageo’s home of Scotch Whisky in Speyside - from 16-18th June.
Luca Corradini - Jamie Jones - Kyle Wilkinson - Tim Laferla - Jon Hughes
Quick summary of who from where (just for completeness) will be competing in the UK finals:
Luca Corradini (American Bar at The Savoy)
Tim Laferla (Red Bar at Bam-Bou)
Kyle Wilkinson (Blind Pig)
Jon Hughes (Bramble Bar in Edinburgh)
Jamie Jones (No Fixed Abode in Manchester)
Lorenzo Antinori (Beaufort Bar at The Savoy Hotel, London)
Michele Mariotti (American Bar at The Savoy Hotel, London)
Benji Purslow (Keystone Crescent, London)
Ali Reynolds (The Hawskmoor, London)
Ben Williams (Cloud 23, Manchester)
Benji Purslow - Ben Williams - Ali Reynolds - Michele Mariotti - Lorenzo Antinori
Good luck all – I’m certainly looking forward to finding out how it goes.
One thing will stand out from the above list of contestants, and that’s the Savoy take over – I know they have a big bar team (across two bars), they obviously enjoy support from the Savoy for their bartenders to take part in such competitions and I guess the Savoy’s policy of employing those with talent are all good reasons for the weighting, over and above competition talent and experience. Only the judges will know for sure just how the scores stacked up, but I’m hoping they are fully aware of the perception others have. As I walked back to London Bridge tube, one of the contestants also getting away early was chatting away on their phone and could be heard to be complaining that “…It’s always that bar. It was fun today, but I don’t know why I bothered.” It’s very good for Diageo to be aligned with famous venues, but they do need to reassure the bartenders that make the competition what it is, that bias isn’t an additional challenge they need to overcome.
Rum Databank: Diageo Reserve World Class