Forget the World Cup, this year’s big match is the 10th edition of Bartenders v Sommeliers. Can the somms extend their five-four lead? Clinton Cawood heads pitch-side to find out
In the year 2009, the rivalry between those behind the bar and those that wield a wine list went pro, when the inaugural Bartenders v Sommeliers (BvS) competition took this grudge off the streets and into the upstairs room of a west London gastropub.
Cut to 2018 and this clash of the on-trade titans is now in its 10th year. Among its former champions are some of the greats of the UK on-trade. Some are dedicating themselves to coaching BvS teams, while others have ascended the ranks to become part of the competition’s esteemed judging panel.
With the sommeliers having taken the trophy home five years out of the nine, this year is crucial for both sides.
Teams have been under the watchful eye of their coaches since their training days just weeks before – meeting for further tutelage and receiving WhatsApp messages at all hours of the day with tips for their cocktail round, or advice on how to tell a Malbec from a Tempranillo.
Of course, it’s never straightforward. As we go into this first round of competition at The London Cocktail Club Oxford Circus, one of the somms has had to drop out, while the bartender team is temporarily diminished, with two of its members called away to compete in a certain high-profile cocktail competition of world-class standards.
Those that remain are ready for battle. The somms gather around an assortment of corkscrews. Two bartenders are in tiki shirts, despite the tiki round only being held in the final at Imbibe Live in July.
As the two teams eye each other up before the challenges begin, the bartenders discover the sommelier team coach Jim Wrigley is out of the country, but the team has drafted in Andrew Copsey as a second coach. There’s some fighting talk from Jess Hellicar of Satan’s Whiskers: ‘Even with seven coaches, they’re still going to lose.’
And so, in this convivial atmosphere, it’s on to the blind tasting, with competitors required to identify the grape varieties of six wines and match the names of three gin and three whisky samples.
There’s a bonus five points for the first to finish and they all rise to the challenge, finishing well within their allotted time. But it’s Devil’s Darling’s Gergő Muráth who is fastest – all the more impressive when it transpires that only he and rival captain Melody Wong of Ten Trinity Square Private Club have achieved full marks.
You’d expect the sommeliers to ace the grape-themed part of this challenge, but they’ve clearly immersed themselves in spirits training in recent weeks, and lose crucial points in the wine section. Hellicar and Milk & Honey’s Kris Grimes cost the bartender team a few points, mixing up the different expressions of The Glenrothes for example, but it’s a strong enough performance overall to put their team well into the lead after the first round.
Bartenders 55 Sommeliers 45
The Grand Crew wins the coin toss to go first and The Connaught’s Aurel Istrate’s name is picked from a shaker tin. He draws the name of his classic cocktail.
‘The Rob Roy is my favourite cocktail and there’s a nice story behind it,’ he says, before going into some Scottish history, linking the hue of the cocktail to the hair colour of its namesake. He has an easy, chatty manner, and it’s evident he’s spent time training with his coaches, as well as the bar team at the Connaught.
‘Maybe we can name this one after you,’ he says to one of the judges. ‘What’s your name?’ Roy Evans of FMV laughs as he tells him. His fellow judge, consultant Nigel Lister, nods as he tastes the drink. ‘The temperature’s good, and it’s well balanced. I’m happy with that,’ he says.
Next up is bartender team captain Muráth, who draws the Vodka Collins. He dives in with some history on the cocktail and the rise of vodka in the 1950s, via some Errol Flynn trivia, and mentions the drink’s origin on nearby Conduit Street.
‘I know I only have to make one drink, but because I love to show off I’m going to make four so I can double shake,’ he says, demonstrating what is indeed a distinctive technique. ‘I developed this when I was working this station on dispense during a Christmas period with 250 guests.’
The judges are impressed with both performances, but Muráth earns one point more than Istrate overall.
Bartenders 89 Sommeliers 78
Surprise Bonus Round
There’s nothing quite like a surprise round to throw off well-prepared BvS teams.And yet when a bonus free-pour round is announced, the bartenders are decidedly excited and the somms look quietly confident too. A nominee from each team is required to free pour 50ml of spirits, followed by 175ml of wine, with points awarded for each pour that’s within 5ml for spirits, and 15ml for wine.
Hellicar couldn’t look more at home behind the bar during her pours. Heddon Street Kitchen’s Timothy Connor chats relaxedly while dispensing the Tim Adams Fairfield Block Semillon. ‘A funny story about this wine,’ he says. ‘My name’s Tim and my grandmother’s name is Adams…’
Hellicar’s gin pour is a couple millilitres short, while her wine measure is a little further off the mark, but deemed to be on the right side of 160ml. Connor’s gin pour is slightly over, but not too much to lose points, and his wine pour is spot on. Both teams take the bonus points, and the bartenders retain their advantage.
Bartenders 109 Sommeliers 98
Hellicar’s name is next out of the bartender hat, so she’s up again, this time to take a food order from the panel of judges and make pairing recommendations from a menu of wines and whiskies.
To her credit, her pairings are anything but pedestrian. After a few wine matches for other dishes, she pairs Lister’s pork belly dish with The Glenrothes Sherry Cask Reserve. ‘Its richness will really balance the fattiness of the pork belly,’ she explains. When it comes to the cod with chorizo and samphire dish for Evans, Hellicar suggests the Catena Appellation Vista Flores Malbec. ‘You could have it chilled, which isn’t the traditional way to serve it, but would bring out the freshness of the fish,’ she says.
It’s obvious this scenario is well within Euan McColm of Beaverbrook’s wheelhouse as he approaches the judges, taking an order for water before anything else. Evans requests something lighter than the Malbec recommendation he receives for the beef Wellington and McColm doesn’t miss a beat, extolling the virtues of the Protos Ribera del Duero Crianza instead. ‘It’s a bit lighter and fresher and the acidity’s higher, which will help cut through the fat of the pastry.’
The judges nod appreciatively at his description of a cheese and peated whisky pairing as ‘a festival of smells’. They find his performance to be worthy of a few more points than Hellicar’s, and the margin between the two teams begins to narrow.
Bartenders 138 Sommeliers 132
Grimes and Connor, both in braces, face off in the next round – a bottle of wine served to the judges according to the Court of Master Sommeliers standards.
‘We’re celebrating tonight – it’s my dad’s birthday,’ announces Bibendum’s Christina Schneider, indicating fellow judge Luca Cordiglieri of Two Spoons.
‘I won’t be needing to ask for ID in that case,’ quips Connor. He opens the bottle of Cave Dumazet Collines Rhodaniennes Viognier Schneider ordered, while simultaneously discussing Côte-Rôtie with the judges. He’s brought a tasting glass to check the wine himself, before offering Schneider a taste. He serves the rest of the table and the judges clink glasses.
Grimes is up next. ‘This is my only round? Don’t fuck it up…’ he says to himself as he polishes wine glasses in preparation.
He has no shortage of chat for the table, but the wine service itself is less fluid. He remembers halfway through opening the bottle to retrieve the glasses for the table, and gets confused by the origin of the wine and the term ‘crianza’. Fortunately, conversation with the panel keeps returning to whisky, playing not only to his strengths, but to his Scottish accent too.
This round clearly favours a sommelier’s skillset though and Connor has taken full advantage. It shows in the judges’ scores, and the somms pull into the lead.
Bartenders 158 Sommeliers 162
Mystery box cocktail creation
If the bartenders are to regain their advantage, this is their chance. One person from each team has to create an original cocktail using a spirit and at least two other ingredients from a mystery box.
By chance the team captains are up against each other. Muráth draws the box containing No 3 Gin. ‘Kombucha? Fuck that,’ he says perusing the other ingredients and discarding the bottle along with harissa paste and umeboshi plums. ‘I can see a Perfect Lady here,’ he says, eyeing up the Crème de Pêche, ‘and I can spice it up with the lime and lemongrass cordial.
‘I was asking about eggs, but I don’t need them as there’s aquafaba,’ he adds, holding a can of chickpeas and explaining how their water substitutes for egg-white.
As he presents his Thai Lady to the judges, Wong retires with her team to consider her ingredients. There’s real teamwork as they taste various flavour combinations in the precious few minutes before she takes the stage.
Wong confidently presents a Coffee Fashioned, containing Penny Blue Rum, coffee and a late-harvest wine. While her chat about the thinking behind the drink is appreciated by the judges, she gets a little carried away with her stirring.
‘There’s a good balance of flavours, but it’s too dilute,’ says Lister. Schneider describes it as ‘quite adventurous and different and presented in an engaging way’.
It makes Muráth’s approach look comparatively safe, and the judges reward that with an extra point. Wong secures a slim but crucial advantage for her team when they head to the final in July.
Bartenders 189 Sommeliers 194
Thanks to London Cocktail Club Oxford Circus for hosting the competition and for all their help on the day. Thanks also to the team coaches and judges for their time and expertise. And thanks to Bibendum for supplying the wine and to FMV for supplying the spirits.
It ain’t over till it’s over. Watch the grand finale on Centre Stage at 3.30pm on Monday 2 July.
While you’re here…