When Two Tribes go to War: Bartenders V Sommeliers

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2012 sees Imbibe’s Bartenders v Sommeliers return for its fourth year, but will the sommeliers snatch glory for the second year running, or are the bartenders about to take back the title? Kate Pass reports from the training sessions

Forget about the Olympics and Euro 2012 – there’s only one competition you need to care about this summer, and that’s the return of Imbibe’s now legendary (ahem) Bartenders v Sommeliers. Two crack teams have been assembled, both consisting of professionals at the top of their own game. Not that this matters; it isn’t their own game they need to worry about, it’s someone else’s. This is the competition that teaches bartenders the skills they need to be a top sommelier, and vice versa, then lets them compete for glory. There’s always been a healthy rivalry between the teams, but with last year’s sommelier squad snatching their first victory in three years of the competition, the bartenders are dead-set on taking back that trophy. The sommeliers, meanwhile, have made it clear that they’re not giving up the title without one hell of a fight…


Captain: Dominic Jacobs, Harvey Nichols

Will Cassin, Hawksmoor Seven Dials

Sam Fish, Mojo

Andy Mil, London Cocktail Club

Tiziano Tasso, The Club at The Ivy

Bright and early on a Wednesday, five remarkably punctual bartenders descend on Bibendum HQ in London’s Primrose Hill – land of perfectly groomed dogs and harassed-looking au pairs – preparing to cross over to the dark side.Team coach Andrea Briccarello of Galvin Restaurants greets his charges warmly as they nervously shift from foot-to-foot, comparing their levels of wine-world experience.

Destination: Kent

At one end of the scale is Harvey Nichols’ Dominic Jacobs, who has years of champagne bar experience, and at the other is Mojo’s Sam Fish who admits: ‘Yeah, obviously we stock a few wines and beers, but that’s not what Mojo’s about. It’s all about the cocktails. Thank God my boss’s wife is a sommelier. She’s promised to steer me right!’

This year we’ve made a few changes to the competition, not least the inclusion of a new quiz on production methods, with the bartenders’ focus being directed towards English sparkling wine. Rupert Taylor, of Hush Heath Estate in Kent, delivers a masterclass – from still wines to the famous Balfour Brut Rosé. It’s at this early stage that the major difference between the way bartenders and sommeliers taste wines becomes clear: the former have an utter disregard for spittoons.

Keen to show that his nose is up to scratch, Andy Mil, of London Cocktail Club, nods sagely as he describes the Hush Heath Chardonnay as ‘very yeasty’, and as the sparkling rosé is poured, Jacobs informs a clearly delighted Taylor that he already has a bottle in his fridge.

Eventually the question of Buckfast arises, and whether or not it should be considered an English sparkling. Laughing, Taylor informs the group that whilst, no, it shouldn’t, one of his sommelier friends once decanted a bottle and served it to a particularly tricky customer, claiming it was a vintage port. He wasn’t caught out.

Next, the team troops back upstairs to tackle the six wines that the competition’s wine sponsor, Bibendum, has selected for the day. There will be a blind tasting, a food-pairing round and a wine-service challenge further down the line, so it’s crucial that the bartenders know these wines inside out. Briccarello quickly proves himself to be a fantastically thorough coach, pointing out the appellation of each wine on a map, talking the team through the nose, the palate, the history and then the ideal food matches for each.

‘Don’t underestimate the importance of a wine’s history in engaging the customer. It’s like the history of a cocktail that you might make – it’s interesting and also a great sales tool,’ he says.

As Briccarello opens a bottle of Rioja, he quickly realises there’s something wrong. The wine’s corked, giving him an excellent opportunity to teach the bartenders to recognise when a wine’s faulty.

‘Ugh,’ remarks Fish as she smells the cork. ‘It’s like old, wet carpet.’ Mil is more upbeat: ‘It’s fine if a wine is corked. Just stick some lemonade in and it’ll be great!’ Fish looks appalled, chastising him: ‘No, you should mix it with Coke – that’s the traditional Spanish way.’

Gut instinct

As the discussion looks to be wandering off topic, Briccarello quickly takes the opportunity to induct his team in the most important aspect of sommelier-hood: minerality. ‘It’s tricky, but you really need to be able to identify mineral notes. Think of the smell of rain on a hot pavement on a summer’s day,’ he says, nosing a Chablis. ‘Is it a bit like the smell of the sea, too?’ asks Fish, earning herself an excited nod and congratulations from the coach.

Tiziano Tasso from The Club at The Ivy – and Imbibe’s Bar Personality of the Year 2012 – is the first to raise the thorny issue of food and wine matching: ‘Beyond fish, what are we supposed to recommend for a white to work with?’ Briccarello explains that there are no hard and fast rules. ‘This isn’t a perfect science. You can’t tell a customer “you can only drink this wine if you order this dish”,’ he explains. ‘And it varies hugely from wine to wine. It’s never as simple as white with fish and red with steak. Regionality’s a great cheat: if a wine comes from a certain area, odds are it’s going to work well with that region’s traditional dishes.’ 

A Grüner Veltliner illustrates perfectly the influences of a cooler climate, with all of the team recognising the spike in acidity. It’s a New World Riesling, though, that really gets the opinions flowing: Fish immediately notes tropical fruit character, Hawksmoor’s Will Cassin remarks on the shorter finish, and Tasso is intrigued by an almost effervescent note.

The team is able to discuss the differences between the three wines, suggesting accurate food matches for a Pinot Noir, Rioja and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, before spending lunchtime pairing them with cheese and pickle sandwiches.

It’s at this point that Mil has to take his leave – he’s off to a cocktail competition in Manchester – but announces with a saintly smile that he’ll be using his train journey to learn his wine regions and to study the service guidelines set out by the Court of Master Sommeliers. Good lad.

It’s these guidelines that Briccarello next moves on to: facing the label to the customer as you pour, or serving ladies first and always travelling clockwise around a table, no matter how many laps this dictates you make.

Trying to remember a thousand things at once, interaction with the ‘customer’ is a little stilted, causing Briccarello to shake his head and deliver a rather rousing pep-talk. ‘You’re not just presenting the wine when you do this – you’re presenting yourself. What I’ve always loved about bartenders is your charm and personality. So many sommeliers are stiff and formal. Don’t be one of them!’

High-pressure pouring

Next, the team watches with bated breath as Briccarello demonstrates the champagne cascade. ‘Nobody breathe, please,’ he requests, as Cassin starts heckling him, ‘Andrea, where’s your label facing? Andrea, why isn’t your hand behind your back?’

Without breaking concentration or stopping pouring, Briccarello adjusts his position to adhere to the standards he’s just imposed on his team. Applause erupts as the cascade is successfully dismantled, and Fish immediately starts practising.

Finally, the time has arrived for the dreaded magnum pour, and the election of a team captain: someone who can successfully divide a magnum of prosecco between 16 glasses, averaging 93.75ml per glass, one-handed, without leaving anything in the bottle (last year’s bartender captain, Sean Ware, tried to get around this by downing his leftovers onstage – he didn’t get away with it).

Tasso remains quiet. Fish takes herself out of the running: ‘I’ve never poured a magnum before, and we need to win this.’ With Mil in absentia, it’s down to Cassin and Jacobs. ‘Have either of you ever poured a magnum?’ Fish asks. As Cassin shakes his head, Jacobs nods. ‘Yeah, hundreds. And I’ve got a diploma in sabrage…’

With that, Jacobs picks up his magnum and his new mantle with ease. His first attempt is impressive: 16 evenly filled glasses and only 100ml left over, not to mention that he pours the whole thing one-armed and without taking a break.

As the team-mates help themselves to the freshly filled flutes, their determination to recoup the title becomes ever more pronounced. Extra practice sessions are scheduled, there’s frantic discussion on the intricacies of the cascade, and the idea of intimidating the sommeliers with some form of viral video is mooted. One thing’s for sure – they’re in it to win it.

Many thanks to: Andrea Briccarello and Rupert Taylor for all their help and expertise during the training day, and to Bibendum for hosting the session and supplying the wines.


Captain: Gergely Barsi Szabó, consultant sommelier

Irina Atanasova, Madison Restaurant & Bar

Cédric Beaumond, Savoy Grill

Melanie Ellis, The Providores

Christina Larsson, Consultant Sommelier

‘Videos? Really? Well, this means war, doesn’t it?’ exclaims an indignant Gergely Barsi Szabó upon arriving at the Beefeater distillery the following morning. Quickly, plans are drawn up to create a Team Sommelier Twitter account, Facebook group, and to basically attack the bartenders from any and every social media platform available. 

Just as the bartenders learned about the production of English sparkling wine, our team of top sommeliers have left the cellars of some of London’s finest restaurants unattended to take a tour round the Beefeater gin distillery. Brand ambassador Tim Stones talks them through the safety rules: ‘Phones off, no batteries of any kind – shockingly, high abv alcohol and sparks aren’t great together…’

The idea of intimidating the sommeliers with some form of viral video is mooted

In a baptism of fire(water), a sample of 96% abv neutral spirit is passed around the group for nosing. There are a few attempts to pick out aromas before Stones reminds them that it’s neutral spirit, and not supposed to smell of anything.

After a quick history lesson, the team is led somewhere which definitely does have a scent – Beefeater’s juniper store. Cédric Beaumond from the Savoy Grill and Barsi Szabó take great strides around the giant fridge breathing in deeply; they’re very clearly in their element.

Next there’s an introduction to the botanicals in Beefeater 24, particularly the green and sencha teas that make the gin unique. ‘The sencha has a great, grassy quality,’ says Stones. ‘It’s a Kiwi Sauvignon!’ declares Barsi Szabó. Then the team visit the stills and taste samples of 24 in its early stages of infusion. Given a sample that’s deemed not quite ready, Irina Atanasova of Madison Restaurant & Bar shakes her head: ‘I’d drink it like this! Just as it is!’

This year’s blind-tasting challenge is based on six key gin botanicals and the sommeliers’ ability to identify them separately. It’s as they’re nosing the distillates in the lab that their team coach arrives: Esther Medina, of Novikov. 

Coach Medina is full of enthusiasm, telling the team, ‘When I was first asked to coach the sommeliers, I felt like a traitor to bartending. Then I thought about it, and what I’m doing here is actually going to make the world a better place. The more people that can mix a great Martini, the better. Now, we are going to win this, yes?’

Balancing act

The next challenge is the one our sommeliers have been dreading the most: cocktail making. As Medina and Beefeater ambassador Sebastian Hamilton-Mudge get behind the stick, they ask the team if anyone has experience with cocktails. Barsi Szabó nods (there’s a hell of a tale about a Zwack Negroni mixed in a pickle jar – which may or may not help him here). Melanie Ellis of The Providores admits that she has some experience behind the bar, but still doesn’t feel too confident with the cocktail side of things.

The question of Buckfast arises, and whether or not it should be considered an English sparkling

The rest of the team owns up to the fact that, while more than comfortable drinking them, when it comes to actually making cocktails, they feel utterly out of their depth. ‘I don’t even know how to shake!’ laments Christina Larsson.

Medina and Hamilton-Mudge reassure the team that it isn’t as difficult as it looks. ‘It’s all about the balance,’ nods Hamilton-Mudge. ‘It’s a 2:1 ratio of tart to sweet. Get that right and you’re well on the way to a good drink. If you can’t balance it, though, all of the knowledge in the world won’t help you.’ 

Medina’s key pointer is about the elegance of bartending: ‘Every movement should be attractive and well-reasoned. Handle a glass by the base: fingerprints look messy and show disrespect towards the customer as your guest. Also, never serve a drink you’re not proud of. That’s why tasting is so important – some people will tell you not to, that it doesn’t look good, but nothing looks worse than a bartender sending out a terrible drink because they didn’t realise how sour the limes were that day.’

As the duo starts demonstrating the six gin cocktails our competitors will need to master – 20th Century, Clover Club, Corpse Reviver #2, Dry Martini, Negroni, Pegu Club and Tom Collins – Atanasova raises the issue of single versus double straining, causing an almighty dispute between Medina and the boys from Beefeater. Whilst Stones and Medina feel that, for the most part, a double strain is an unnecessary complication of matters, Hamilton-Mudge is staunchly in favour, citing the added finesse the process lends a drink. Eventually agreeing to disagree, Medina advises her budding bartenders to ‘do it however you feel is right, but whatever you do, you must be able to justify this to the judges. This goes for everything you do behind the bar.

‘It may not be the way that someone else might like to do things, but as long as you can explain yourself well, they can only respect that.’

The discussion moves on to shaking. ‘Long strokes are the way to do it,’ Medina informs her rapt audience. ‘Close, short shakes are totally ineffectual,’ adds Hamilton-Mudge, offering up an undeniably comical demonstration.

The team members next take turns behind the stick, with most opting to try out a Martini first, having had a healthy dose of fear delivered by Hamilton-Mudge’s assertion that ‘it’s the easiest drink in the world to totally mess up’.

Medina guides Ellis through mixing the perfect Dry Martini. ‘Sommeliers hold a bottle by the base, but as a bartender, go for the neck!’ Medina tells her, before admitting to be thoroughly impressed with the way Ellis handles a Japanese jigger and declares the final drink ‘perfectly done’.

The team have left the cellars of some of london’s finest restaurants unattended

A cheered Ellis makes way for Beaumond to tackle the Corpse Reviver #2. As he takes up his post, he opens his notebook to reveal extensive notes – the man is clearly taking this seriously. Medina is, like Briccarello, fastidious, carefully correcting Beaumond’s shake and talking him through the process.

Shy-seeming shakes are a common theme at first, resulting in Stones’ recommendation to Larsson to ‘shake it like there’s a mouse in there, and you want that mouse dead.’ Her previously timid shake is utterly transformed into a thing of beauty, eliciting whoops of support from her fellow sommeliers.

The superbowl

Finally our budding bartenders move on to their version of the opposition’s champagne cascade: the punchbowl (replacing the Blue Blazer: the showboating element of previous years). This year, both teams will be completing both challenges, knowing only that their mystery box of ingredients at Imbibe Live will contain a bottle of Beefeater 24 and some tea. Stones and Medina run the team through a brief history of the punchbowl, with all five members making a note to track down a copy of David Wondrich’s opus. 

‘Exact measures aren’t as important in punch, but you still need to keep the balance firmly in check,’ Stones says firmly, as he empties an entire bottle of Beefeater 24 into an antique punchbowl. ‘And that is a very nice measure!’ remarks Beaumond as the sommeliers’ eyebrows all raise in surprise and approval.

‘Can we bring garnishes for our punch? Flowers and things?’ asks Ellis. ‘A rubber duck, maybe?’ adds Barsi Szabó.

‘Of course!’ Medina tells them. ‘I’d advise you to, definitely. Go out and find yourselves something incredible to use as your container, too. Oh, but what about ice! I bet those bartenders will bring their own ice…’ she adds, darkly.

Barsi Szabo has a hell of a tale about a Zwack Negroni mixed in a pickle jar

With that, conversation turns back to their planned social media onslaught, to team uniforms, and to that infernal champagne cascade. ‘It’s the first year that the sommeliers have done this challenge [excepting Kelvin McCabe’s impromptu, and winning effort in last year’s tie-breaker at Imbibe Live], we can’t be the first ones
to send it flying!’ exclaims Barsi Szabó.

‘No, you absolutely can’t. As of tomorrow you’re going to practise, practise, practise and then you’re going to beat those bartenders! Don’t let me down!’
Medina enthuses.

As the sommeliers take down the dates for their next practice session, and plot their route to victory, they all make it quite clear that for each of them, as for their coach, failure is not an option.

Many thanks to: Esther Medina, Sebastian Hamilton-Mudge and Tim Stones for all of their help and expertise during the training day, and to Beefeater for hosting the session and supplying the gin.

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