Smokestack’s Lee Jones on winning International Southern Comfort Showdown 2018

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Drinks: Drinks

The good old-fashioned hospitality of the American south is alive and well in the UK, as demonstrated by Smokestack’s Lee Jones at the International Southern Comfort Showdown 2018. The Leeds-based bartender took home the glory at the competition’s final in New Orleans, the birthplace of Southern Comfort.

For the Showdown, bartenders were tasked with creating a cocktail using any of the Southern Comfort products that embody the spirit of their hometown. Jones used Southern Comfort 100 Proof in his winning serve, the Whitesmith Cobbler, which won him the crown at the UK competition earlier this year.

‘To be in New Orleans representing the UK for the Southern Showdown final is about as close to the essence of hospitality as you can get,’ said Jones.

Whitesmith Cobbler
By Lee Jones

Glass: Nick & Nora
Garnish: Pickled gooseberry, mint hydrosol and absinthe bon bon
Method: Stir over ice and strain.

40ml Southern Comfort 100 Proof
20ml Absentroux herbal wine
20ml gooseberry cordial
1 dash champagne acid

The line-up of judges (Christian Tirel, brand ambassador for Southern Comfort in the UK and Ireland; James Johnstone, senior brand manager of SouthTrade International in Australia; and Norton Christopher, the beverage director of Sac-a-Lait in New Orleans) assessed the bartenders on technique, presentation, knowledge of the brand’s history and, of course, the flavour of their cocktails.

Imbibe caught up with Jones to get the skinny on the international final, and a few tips on how to become a world-conquering bartender…

Congratulations on your win, Lee! How did you feel?

Satisfied and exuberant. Competitions like this go on for months! From the  time you start working on the drink, to the email entry, to the regionals, to the UK final and then the global final was a good four months, and it never really leaves your mind when you’re in it, so to win felt like all the effort paid off.

Tell us about your experience in New Orleans for the final…

It was a culmination of so many things. New Orleans is such a welcoming place and it never really stops. Mix that in with the best of hospitality being present for Tales of the Cocktail and you just constantly feel like you’re being looked after.

We started off on the first day doing a swamp tour feeding alligators, which was a lot of fun, and there was one night we went out on Frenchman St and it encapsulated everything you want New Orleans to be, there was live music everywhere and all the bars were so cool.

What went down at the global final?

It was pretty relaxed, I was really glad that it was at the beginning of the trip. I think when it gets to that point you’ve done everything you can in terms of preparation. I felt really good and confident. It’s a whole other thing presenting a drink about New Orleans and being in New Orleans.

What sort of preparation did you do?

After the national, I left it for a couple of weeks before I started thinking about it. I wanted to approach the drink as if I’d not made it before.

It all comes down to the way you’re hosting, that was the most important thing for me, I wanted to focus on hosting my guests, who in this case were the judges.

The only way to get around that is to make the drink enough times that it’s second nature. There was a lot of talking to the cat, she’s heard that presentation quite a few times!

Do you have any tips for those entering any national competitions?

Be transparent and honest about what you have, what your ingredients are and the reason for using them.

The standard of talent is really high, especially in the UK, so it’s all about having a really good story and delivering it to your guests.

We’re all good storytellers, when we have something that’s genuine – you can always tell a story that’s been forced rather than coming from the heart. I think it’s always easier presenting a drink where I have a story, it links in with the brand in some way and the two merge together.

If it’s based on real people and real connections to you, that will always shine through and give you the edge.

So what was the story behind your drink?

Part of the brief of the competition was to be inspired by your homeland, so I tied that in with the birth of Southern Comfort, and Martin Wilkes Heron playing with what he had available to him in New Orleans to create it.

I come from Bolton originally, and I wanted to use something that reminded me of home. My dad’s an avid gardener and the garden has all sorts in it. The problem is my mum uses absolutely none of it!

What does get used though is the fruit, which always makese it onto the table because my mum’s got a sweet tooth, so the flavour of gooseberry reminds me of home.

I found out that a lot of the Lancashire millworkers used to plant gooseberries, which is why they’re rife there. I knew that the tartness of the gooseberry would balance with the sweetness of the Southern Comfort. I also used Absentroux and the herbal absinthe-vermouth-style crossover helped dry out the drink nicely. It was a really simple cocktail.

In the final, I changed it slightly to incorporate elements of the two other UK finalists’ entries, who also came over to New Orleans.

Sarah [Berardi] had used mint in her drink, so I did a mint hydrosol; and Tom [Hay-Owens] had learned how to make sweets, he’d made all sorts like Ramos Gin Fizz sweets, and I asked him to make some for my garnish. That helped to make it new for me as well.

What’s next for you?

No more competitions for a very long time! It was a big transition period for me while this was happening, I’d been at Smokestack as general manager for four years, and during that time I was doing a lot of development work for the company, menus and training. I couldn’t continue doing both, so the company created a new role for me.

I’m now doing business development for events and training, and I’m not really behind the stick any more, so it feels weird entering competitions.

But we’ll see… the itch may be back in a few months! It was a pretty good way to go out if it was one of the last ones that I do.

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Laura Foster

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