You can usually follow the crowd (and the noise) to get to the final of Bartenders v Sommeliers at Imbibe Live – and this year was no different… Kate Pass watches as the Slippery Wizard does battle with Chesney Hawkes
The first day of Imbibe Live is always an exciting one, with thrills, spills, the occasional breakage and of course, the biggest event of the day… the final of Bartenders v Sommeliers on Centre Stage. The mob is large and noisy, the two teams are pacing like caged animals and the bartenders seem to be guarding a mysterious suitcase with their lives… Finally the time has come.
With three rounds, a handful of quiz questions and the sommeliers leading by a slender margin of six points, there is everything to play for – especially if you consider that the comp is in its sixth year, with the bartenders currently leading 3:2. The legendary trophy stands on the bar top, clearly bearing the scars of the last five years – its most recent residence at Trailer Happiness saw it return complete with scorch marks. ‘I like this trophy, it has life in it,’ says the bartenders’ Daniele Liberati, ever so politely.
Host Andy Gemmel takes to the stage and swiftly introduces the teams. The bartenders come out to whoops of joy, and a soundtrack of Will Smith’s Gettin’ Jiggy With It. The sommeliers’ arrival is heralded by the inimitable tones of, er… Chesney Hawkes’ The One and Only, to looks of total confusion. ‘I asked for Jay Z… What is this?’ asks the team captain, Vinoteca’s Gus Gluck, only to be told that his coach, Loves Company’s Jeff Stuit has over-ridden the decision and opted for this 1980s classic to introduce his charges.
Without further ado, they’re off…
THE MAGNUM POUR
As the bartender team captain, LAB’s Drew Mallins steps up. ‘How are the hands feeling today?’ he calls out to Gluck. The two have gone head-to-head once before, in the wine service challenge, which saw Mallins deliver a near-flawless performance that (albeit temporarily) took his team into the lead. Understandably, Gluck is slightly rattled. ‘My hands? Shaky as fuck, mate.’
It isn’t without good reason either: this captains’ challenge is tricky. There’s one magnum of sparkling wine, 16 champagne flutes and a mission to pour the fizz evenly between them, only using one arm, never returning to a glass and leaving nothing in the bottle.
As the Beastie Boys blare out across Olympia, Mallins is first to open his magnum, with Gluck close behind. The first glass is the most important in this round, acting as a marker for the subsequent 15, and it is immediately apparent that one of the two has made a major error of judgement.
Mallins’ measures are significantly larger than Gluck’s, meaning either he will run out of wine before the end of the flight, or Gluck is going to be left with a lot of fizz in the bottle.
Bartenders’ coach Stephen Raducki from Berners Tavern at The London Edition is backing his boy. ‘The sommelier has underpoured like crazy. We’ve got this,’ he assures the team. Under or over, there is no way of knowing yet, but Gluck has picked up speed, and is suddenly a couple of flutes ahead. As he tips out the last of the bottle it becomes apparent that Mallins and Raducki are the ones who have misjudged the measures – Gluck’s 16 are almost identical. Shortly after, his opponent finishes up, with barely a dribble of wine in his last glass. The scores are damning, and see the somms extend their lead by over 20 points.
This is the round with the potential to change everything with just one false move. Two years ago the sommelier team snatched victory following the catastrophic cascade collapse of Andy Mil from London Cocktail Club.
One Canada Square’s Sarah Riddle is the name drawn for the sommeliers. ‘Can we swap that please?’ she pleads, but our judges remain unmoved. For the bartenders it’s Luca Missaglia of Quo Vadis who promptly vanishes backstage with his team, to the bafflement of the audience.
A few minutes later the bartenders re-appear, all clad in high-vis vests and hard hats – construction workers, ready to build the cascade. They put up hazard signs and wrap the audience (and judges) in warning tape, whilst the sommeliers look on with increasing impatience.
Soon enough things have settled down enough for proceedings to begin, with the assembly of that dastardly cascade. True to her performances throughout the competition Riddle is incredibly careful, checking and re-checking her tower from all angles, whilst Missaglia swiftly and accurately creates a stack of five coupettes (the rules demand four glasses, any others are a bonus). Riddle has also gone big. In fact, it’s the first time both teams have gone for five-stacks – a risky strategy.
As they begin pouring, there’s tension followed by wild cheers as the Louis Roederer starts to pour from the top to the second tier. Both pour beautifully, and the judges murmur their approval, but before long it’s time for the audience to hold their breath again, as Riddle is first to start dismantling. There’s a wobble but things seem to be going smoothly, until the panel spots her pouring the champagne between glasses to even out the levels.
Her new-found confidence also sees wine spilling on the bar top, and a healthy slug of Roederer left in the bottle, which judge Tim Homewood samples ‘to check the size of the measure’.
Missaglia on the opposite side of the stage is running behind, though his form is flawless. ‘Look at those levels!’ marvels judge William Pineapple, as fellow judge Nigel Lister notices that there isn’t a single drop wasted. The bartenders are understandably jubilant, and his accuracy sees his score come in at 24.5/30, six points ahead of the sommeliers, going some way to narrowing that gap. In celebration, the team releases a number of confetti cannons – stunning, yet ruinous for the ice-block sitting ready for the final round, now a stunning array of colours and most definitely no longer food-grade…
Throughout this stage of the competition, the teams have each been asked a number of questions: the bartenders focusing on grape varieties, the sommeliers on Diageo Reserve Brands spirits. Each correct answer is worth one point, and also something useful (or something less so for wrong answers) to help making the punch in this final round. It’s either access to that sadly defiled block of ice, or a bucket of wet ice; a nice big ladle or a tiny ladle fit only for hobbits – you get the gist.
Both teams have gone three for three up until the final, crucial question. Each have had a chance to bring in five additional items, either from home or the stands at Imbibe Live. They can be either ingredients or equipment, which teams will be able to use alongside a bottle of champagne, a bowl of fruit, a selection of Diageo Reserve Brands spirits that includes Ketel One and Bulleit Rye, and a mystery box provided by Imbibe.
However, a wrong answer will see those bonus supplies confiscated, and even worse: their opponents granted access to their mystery box to remove the five items they deem most useful.
The bartenders are up first, and when asked which grape varietal is also known as Spätburgunder and Blauburgunder, it looks worryingly like the question might have bested them. Eventually though, they tentatively suggest Pinot Noir, then celebrate in characteristically enthusiastic style when they are proven correct.
Over on the sommelier side, the team looks equally flummoxed when asked the name of the still Tanqueray No TEN is made in – in spite of some frenzied conferring they fail to land on the correct answer of Tiny Ten, much to Homewood’s dismay.
The bartenders’ Liberati makes his way across the stage to pillage the mystery box, ecstatic at any chance of hobbling the somms and that atrocious lead. The liqueurs are on his hit list, with his spoils including a bottle of genepi that Imbibe definitely hadn’t put in there…
All of this is done with Liberati dressed as a wizard, complete with beard and pointy hat, whilst Mariotti is playing bar back dressed in a Voldemort-esque black cape. Their punch bowl is stashed inside a leather holdall, and much like the previous round, everything is planned to perfection.
The sommelier team have come similarly prepared, in an arguably more bizarre manner… Instead of a punch bowl, they will be mixing their drink in a bag-in-box, and dispensing it to the judges through an elaborate funnel (complete with on and off switches) that Gluck has dubbed Medusa.
Understandably Brand-acher chooses ex-bartender Michael Sager-Wilde to be her bar back, and as the music fires up, the teams are off.
With only five minutes to produce a punch from scratch, the pressure is on, though as the somms diligently start crafting a grapefruit and Tanqueray No TEN-based tipple, things have become somewhat more raucous on the other side of the stage.
Mariotti has taken a somewhat novel approach to bar-backing, and as Liberati mixes herbal tea with Zacapa 23, he procures a microphone and proceeds to deliver a very enthusiastic commentary, starting with: ‘WE CALL HIM THE SLIPPERY WIZARD!’
As the final seconds tick away, the sommeliers suffer some near-catastrophic technical difficulties – neither Brandacher, nor Sager-Wilde seem to have mastered Gluck’s mighty funnel. As their captain desperately attempts to explain how to start Medusa’s flow (the rules forbid anyone but the chosen competitor and the bar back from touching any part of the punch), the team starts to panic.
In the end, everything works and they finish under the wire, just as Liberati almost sets fire to his eyebrows whilst drinking from a bottle of Armand de Brignac decorated with blazing sparklers.
The judges sip and deliberate. ‘They’re so different, in a really unexpected way,’ comments Pineapple. ‘The bartenders have gone for something very traditional, with rum and tea, whilst the sommeliers have gone for something ginny, fresh and fruity. The thing setting them apart is that the tea in the bartenders’ is over-brewed. It’s ended up too dry.’ The scores are tight – in fact, the sommeliers shade it by only half a point – but there’s no denying that both sides put on one hell of a show.
The final totals are not that close – the sommeliers snatch victory with a spectacular margin of 21 points, taking back the title and bringing the overall tally back to 3:3, though the bartenders are gracious in defeat.
As the victors escape, clutching their cup and a magnum of Nicolas Feuillatte champagne, they make the solemn vow to bring back that trophy with a few more war wounds for next year’s clash.
Thanks to Donald Edwards, Tim Homewood, Nigel Lister, William Pineapple, Stephen Raducki and Jeff Stuit for their help and expertise. Thanks also to Diageo Reserve for all of those wonderful spirits and to Berkmann Wine Cellars, Enotria, Louis Latour Agencies, Maisons Marques et Domaines and Negociants UK for all of the wine.