Would you drink a cocktail made by a sommelier? Or trust a bartender with food-and-wine-matching tips? Chris Losh spectates as our teams slug it out in Imbibe’s annual battle of the on-trade
* unable to attend as he was busy winning World Class GB.
Jake Burger, Leelex
It began four years ago as a bit of a job-swap concept; to see whether, with a few weeks of training by experts, bartenders could learn to be sommeliers, and sommeliers could learn to be bartenders. But over the years, it’s developed into a full-on quest for professional pride.
Following victories for the bartenders in the first two years of BvS, last year’s play-off win at Imbibe Live for the sommeliers has given this year’s contest an added frisson.
And it has to be said that, right from the start, the 2012 sommeliers have displayed hitherto unmatched levels of dedication to the challenge, with daily bartending sessions, weekly team catch-ups, and their own Facebook page. They even bring all their own bartending equipment and sugar syrup. ‘You can’t trust the local olives,’ says team captain Gergely Barsi Szabó.
Immaculately attired in white shirts, black trousers, braces and bow-ties, they certainly look the part, but as the competition cranks into life, Barsi Szabó is distraught. ‘Fucking Royal Mail,’ he scowls. It seems that the rubber stamp intended to brand all of the barnaps with the specially designed ‘Hybrid Shakers – Dead Liver Society’ logo hasn’t arrived…
The bartenders seem rather more laid-back – possibly fazed by being up and about at 10.30am. ‘They asked when I walked in if I wanted a coffee, and I said I’ll have a Guinness,’ muses Will Cassin sleepily. ‘I think they thought I was joking.’
There’s a slight delay when a leak from the ceiling threatens to give The Portobello Star – where this year’s first round of the competition is being held – an impromptu indoor water feature. But soon our teams are ready to go. Can the fired-up sommeliers make it two wins apiece, or will the bartenders reassert their dominance? Forget the Olympics, this is the contest that everyone will be talking about this summer…
ROUND 1: FIND THE REGION
On paper, this is simple. Our teams pick five famous wine (and spirit) regions out of a hat, and have to find them on a large (blank) map of Europe. They get one point for the right country, and an extra point for pinpointing the exact area of the DO.
With a large number of fiddly wine appellations to remember, this round ought to favour the sommeliers, but the memory of sommelier captain (and MW student) Dawn Davies last year positioning the Tokaji wine region in Slovenia proves that success here is not guaranteed.
The bartenders, meanwhile, seem rather more laid-back – possibly somewhat fazed by being up and about at 10.30am
First up for the Full-Bodied Hot Toddies is Cassin, who admits that his preparation for this was of the ‘panicked schoolboy’ variety, with some frantic memorising on the tube into town. Fortunately, it seems to have done the trick. Fortified by Guinness #1, he successfully breezes through Tuscany, Speyside, Puglia, Piedmont, and Champagne. His Italian team coach Andrea Briccarello purrs contentedly as the three pins pop accurately into his homeland. Full marks.
For the sommeliers, it’s the turn of team captain Barsi Szabó. He gets Armagnac, Rioja, Wachau, Burgundy and Calvados, confidently asking whether he ‘gets extra points for the sub-regions’ of the latter. His ebullience is justified, but the good work regarding Normandy apple-brandy is somewhat undone when he inexplicably places that most sommelierly of regions, Burgundy, 200 miles to the south in Jurançon. At least he got the country right…
Scores: Bartenders 40, Sommeliers 36
ROUND 2: WINE SERVICE
Here, the contestants have to take a wine order from our restaurant table of judges, then open it and present it according to the directions laid down by the Court of Master Sommeliers. About six pages long and full of minute details, these are daunting in their precision, but amount, essentially, to keeping the label facing the customers, pouring a sample, serving ladies first, and moving round the table in a clockwise direction.
Christina Larsson is first up for the sommeliers, and takes a while to clean the wine glasses beforehand. ‘I’m sorry about that,’ she apologises to a somewhat bemused Burger, whose glasses they are. ‘It should have been done before service.’
The slow start gives way to a coolly collected example of sommelier elegance. She even remains unruffled when, in making polite conversation, she asks Burger what he’s eating with the wine, and mis-hears his answer of ‘steak’ as ‘snake’ – to inevitable gales of hilarity from the table and lots of banter about Jake the Snake. Formal rather than engaging, she is nonetheless extremely professional and picks up 31 points out of a possible 40.
For the bartenders, Sam Fish also makes the effort to clean the glasses before starting, but her wine knowledge is sketchy (Châteauneuf-du-Pape is described as ‘lighter than Rioja’) and her manner is rather too relaxed. ‘Excuse me,’ she says as she wrestles with a reluctant capsule, ‘I had a drink last night.’
There is some engaging banter (‘I hear the snake is lovely here…’ she reflects), but it can’t disguise the fact that she is holding the corkscrew as though it were electrified.
It’s a well-meaning, but slightly cack-handed display, and as the sommeliers nose in front, Cassin orders his second Guinness.
Scores: Bartenders 63.5, Sommeliers 67
ROUND 3: ROUND OF DRINKS
The first round that should truly favour the bartending team sees our contestants having to take simple drink orders from four ‘customers’ and prepare them as quickly as possible. With rewards for speed as well as accuracy, it’s a task that the sommeliers have often struggled with in the past, and the bartenders are hopeful that they’ll be able to regain the lead.
But team captain, Dominic Jacobs, groans when he pulls his own name out of the hat. ‘I haven’t been behind a bar for a few months,’ he says. ‘Ideally, I wanted the last round, and Sam wanted this one.’
His first test comes when taking the orders and being asked to tell the judges a bit about the botanicals that go into Beefeater 24. ‘It’s got tea in it,’ he says. ‘Which tea?’ asks judge, Kelvin McCabe. ‘Er, green tea and jasmine,’ Jacobs replies. It’s a plausible answer but, judging from the scowl on the face of the gin’s brand ambassador, Sebastian Hamilton-Mudge, probably not an accurate one.
He’s confident in upselling Bibendum Wine’s Toby Spiers from a Riesling to a Chablis, though this means that he has to find a corkscrew and time is ticking by. Still, he operates with a certain flourish, and noisily pops the caps off the tonic and the beer with an ice scoop. The Beefeater 24 comes – as suggested – with three citrus garnishes, and Burger’s beer is, he tells him, ‘from the back of the fridge’. Jake seems pleased.
Yet our judges are not entirely convinced. For all Jacobs’ engaging manner, he gets the wrong-sized wine serve, at just over six minutes he isn’t exactly jet-propelled, and his lack of knowledge with the gin is a definite minus.
For the sommeliers, Irina Atanasova gets off to a tricky start. Her description of why Beefeater 24 is so named – ‘because of its 24-hour… life’ – might be put down to nerves, but she recovers when suggesting to Burger that a ‘crisp, minerally Chablis’ will be the right wine for the hot weather, rather than Riesling.
Behind the bar, she is methodical rather than flamboyant. And though she forgets the three-citrus garnish for Beefeater 24, and doesn’t pour the tonic in front of the customers, she gets the right-sized wine serve, and her chilling of the beer glass ‘since it’s such a hot day’ is a nice touch. Though with a time of close on eight minutes, it’s likely any glass would have been close to room temperature again by the time of consumption.
Better gin knowledge by either side could have been decisive.
Scores: Bartenders 91, Sommeliers 96
ROUND 4: FOOD AND WINE MATCHING
There’s a short break before this round, and the bartenders take the opportunity to rediscover their mojo with a round of Beefeater 24 shots. It’s not the approved serve, but it might be a good way to confirm the lack of jasmine tea in the botanical mix…
This round is a real clash of the heavyweights, pitching Imbibe’s Bar Personality of the Year, Tiziano Tasso from The Club at The Ivy, against Cédric Beaumond of the Savoy Grill.
Our contestants have to take the food orders for a table of four, and recommend wines to match each dish, using a combination of by-the-glass, 500ml carafe and full-bottle serves.
It isn’t an exact science, meaning that a contestant’s manner, helpfulness, decisiveness and thought processes are just as important as their final wine choices.
Tasso goes first, and, having had a couple of minutes to survey the table’s food order, he has a plan. With two plates of scallops, a mushroom risotto and a Peking duck for starters, he suggests a carafe of Laurenz V Grüner Veltliner for the seafood, and a Dinastía Vivanco Rioja Crianza for the other dishes.
When McCabe says he would prefer a white with the duck, Tasso correctly recommends a glass of Knappstein Riesling.
For the main courses, he suggests a bottle of chilled Huia Pinot Noir to go with a monkfish and two pork bellies, and a glass of Riesling for the prawn curry. When Burger asks for ‘something richer that will send me to sleep’, he rightly puts forward the La Bastide Châteauneuf-du-Pape. And when Spiers asks for a white to go with his pork, he makes a plausible case for the Grüner Veltliner, explaining: ‘pork is fatty – you need a fresh wine to clean your palate’.
All in all, he does very well. His wine knowledge is sound, his suggestions are good and he is clear in his explanations. He could, perhaps, have been more decisive in swatting away obstructive suggestions such as Spiers’ cheeky request for a red to go with his prawn curry, but this is a very accomplished performance. ‘He stayed cool under relentless pressure,’ says Hamilton-Mudge.
Working at the Savoy, you would expect Beaumond to be used to dealing with stroppy diners, and so it proves. The table of judges change their mind more often than a six-year-old in a sweet shop, and if he gets frustrated at constantly having to revise his suggestions, he doesn’t show it.
There are some wry, self-deprecating comments about his being French, and the supposed superiority of French wines, but he is attentive, thoughtful and considered in his answers. The only problem is that, as the table throw ever more factors at him to test his knowledge and his thinking, the ordering process rather drags on. Questions about which white wine would work with lamb, for instance, could have been safely dismissed without offending the table, whereas Beaumond tries a bit too hard to accommodate the judges’ every whim.
‘He was really good, and his recommendations were brilliant, but he should have been more assertive,’ says Spiers, and our panellists narrowly give this round to the bartenders.
Scores: Bartenders 120.5, Sommeliers 124
ROUND 5: COCKTAIL-MAKING
As all bartenders dread the food-and-wine-matching round, so the sommeliers fear the cocktail-making section. Well, usually at least. Beforehand, team captain Barsi Szabó is atypically sanguine. ‘It’s just the right ingredients in the right glass, shake or not shake, strain or not strain,’ he says. ‘It’s the most fun bit.’
Fitting, then, that his name is the one that comes out of the hat to make a Clover Club. Is his nonchalance justified?
Having carefully prepped his station, Barsi Szabó sets off, and the watching Cassin is surprised. ‘You can tell these guys were trained by Esther [Medina],’ he says as Barsi Szabó makes with the tongs. ‘They touch nothing with their hands.’
He answers questions from the judges about when the drink was created and explains why he’s adding a bit more gomme (‘these raspberries aren’t up to my usual standards’).
The table of ‘diners’ change their mind more often than a six-year-old in a sweet shop
His decision to shake the drink first, then add the alcohol later ‘so it doesn’t cook the egg’ raises eyebrows among the assembled judges and bartenders. Even more unusual is his use of only 40ml of gin, rather than 50ml. And to nobody’s surprise the final drink is on the weak side.
‘He didn’t taste it so he wouldn’t have realised,’ growls Burger. ‘There wasn’t enough gin or sugar.’
If Barsi Szabó was all perspiration, Cassin, his bartender opponent, is a study in laid-back insouciance. Despite only having to make one Martini, he decides to make two – a wettish one with the Beefeater 24, and a drier one with the standard Beefeater.
He elects to rest the drinks, rather than stir, and makes a good case for the decision. ‘I’ll put the ice in the 24 a bit earlier, since it’s a higher abv and needs to dilute more,’ he says.
Despite clearly being at ease with what he’s doing, he decides not to give any information about the Martini, justifying his silence with: ‘I’m not that kind of bartender. If you want to know the history, go read a book.’ And when Hamilton-Mudge asks him about the importance of dilution in gin (a question clearly designed to elicit an answer about how it releases the spirit’s complex flavours) Cassin responds gnomically.
‘I read once that you can only make a good Martini in a quiet bar,’ he says. ‘So shhhh.’
It’s a witty comment, and there’s plenty of laughter around the bar. But his refusal to engage helpfully with the ‘customers’ costs him dearly when it comes to the scoring.
‘A Martini is a bartender’s dream,’ says Burger. ‘He could have entertained the crowd for hours.’
‘There was a great opportunity there to throw out some knowledge, but he didn’t take it,’ agrees Hamilton-Mudge.
Just as bad, despite Cassin having tasted the drinks repeatedly, the judges dismiss both of his Martinis as too weak.
In the end, with both teams having failed to impress much with their end product, Barsi Szabó (for the first time in the history of Bartenders v Sommeliers) scores more highly, by virtue of having been more helpful to his customers, and the lead stretches into double figures – another first.
Scores: Bartenders 138, Sommeliers 148
ROUND 6: BLIND TASTING
This year, like last year, our tasting features six classic wine styles, all kindly supplied by Bibendum Wine: Knappstein Riesling, Jean Defaix Chablis and Laurenz V Friendly Grüner Veltliner for the whites, and La Bastide Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Huia Pinot Noir and Vivanco Crianza Rioja for the reds.
But instead of six different spirits (as last year), this year our teams are asked to pick out five key botanicals used in the creation of gin – angelica, coriander, orange, juniper and liquorice – and this proves to be a big leveller. While both sets of tasters are able to differentiate their Aussie Riesling from their Chablis, telling angelica from liquorice is a different story altogether. For the first time, nobody gets full marks, with Atanasova’s seven out of 11 the best score. There’s only one point between the teams in this field, with the sommeliers just shading it.
Final score: Bartenders 158, Sommeliers 169
The fact that our tasters fail so spectacularly with their recognition of gin botanicals does not bode well for the team’s next challenge. In our new Surprise Round, they have to head upstairs to The Portobello Star’s Ginstitute to have a go at making their own team gin – the results of which will be tasted and scored on stage at Imbibe Live on 3 July.
With other contests still to come at Olympia (not least the quiz, the new Punchbowl Challenge and the nerve-shredding Champagne Cascade), this contest is still very much alive. But for the next five weeks, our sommelier team can take comfort from the fact that the Dead Liver Society is, for the moment at least, 11 points ahead of the Hot Toddies.
Will they stay there? Come to Imbibe Live in July to find out…
Many thanks to Beefeater for providing the gins (and botanicals), and to Bibendum Wine for the wines. Also to Jake Burger and all at The Portobello Star for hosting the first round and allowing our teams to play with their still!