Culminating months of intense competition that played out across the globe, the finalists of the Beluga Signature Bartender Competition headed to Sochi in Russia for the ultimate showdown
It was early September in an opulent restaurant on the famed marina of Russia’s southern city Sochi where Italian barman Alessandro Venturi, who works at Hotel La Griffe in Rome, was announced as the 2018 winner of Beluga Vodka’s Signature Competition, heading off rivals from across Europe and America.
To win, Venturi had to earn his place in the global final after regional heats in Italy, before flying to Russia to create a brand new drink, inspired by an aroma he was only given 24 hours prior to stepping behind the bar. It’s no understatement to say he and his fellow competitors faced one of the most intense challenges of their careers.
The journey for Venturi and the other grand finalists started months previous when they attended Beluga Signature Bartender School in their own region before entering the competition and finally gathering in Sochi three days before the grand final. Arriving in Russia the competitors were ready for a packed few days, which included a sky walk and enormous zip-line adventure, sumptuous dinners and a special seminar with Mary Wright & Laurence Fourestie, specialists in aroma and flavours from ADM Nutrition in America.
It was at this seminar, the evening before the grand final, that the competitors were given the aromas to inspire their drink in a lucky-dip draw. The bartenders didn’t have to use the exact flavour in the drink but they had to be able to link the cocktail to it.
Winner Venturi was given the unusual Peru balsam, which is derived from a tree commonly grown in Central and South America and is often used in food, drink and flavouring for perfumes – and was unheard of to most of the group. Others, including UK representative Lorenzo Rocci from The Library Bar at the Lanesborough, had more commonly known flavours such as passion fruit or oak.
When the day arrived, competitors gathered at the DOM restaurant on the marina and were swiftly locked away in a prep room for an hour. This was the only time they had to work out whether the drinks they’d been plotting in their minds since receiving their aromas would actually come together. Inside the room was a medley of fruits, vermouths, spirits, liqueurs, sweeteners and bitters.
‘My idea was to connect all the main points of the brand and our own experience, like luxury, plants, perfumes and myself,’ said Venturi. ‘The perfume inspired me a lot, when I smelled my one I started thinking about the origins of that perfume and possible matches with Beluga Vodka, that's why I choose to represent it all together with a trip – the trip I did with my mind when I smelled it.’
Venturi used Beluga Noble which he mixed with a homemade infusion of Beluga Hunting Herbal of cinnamon, vanilla, black olives and chocolate and sweet vermouth. The infusion was Venturi’s interpretation of what he found in his aroma.
His winning drink was judged by an illustrious panel of drinks industry experts, including Philip Duff, Beluga Signature Bartender School director of education and brand owner of Old Duff Genever; Mary Wright, vice president and chief global flavourist at ADM Nutrition; Marcus Voglrieder, beverage director of Nobu; and Oscar Quagliarini of L’Herbarium.
The panel awarded second place to Natalie Van Wyk from Germany’s Dietrich’s Lübeck and third to Guillermo Pittaluga from France’s La Havane in Nice.
‘The standard for Beluga Signature keeps on increasing and this year was another step up from the bartenders,’ said judge Philip Duff.
‘We were truly impressed by what they presented this year and Alessandro in particular created a great drink while also pulling together his concept and flavour and translating it effortlessly for the judges.’
Venturi’s prize includes assuming the role of Beluga Signature Bartender Program Ambassador 2019, under which he will be representing the vodka brand at Bar Convent Berlin in October 2018, Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, July 2019, and at Barra Mexico in August 2019. He’ll also be given the chance to do a week stage or internship at one of the 50 World’s Best Bars, the choice being entirely down to him.
‘It still hasn’t sunk in,’ said Venturi of his win. ‘It's amazing how our brain needs time to understand all these emotions together. The win was completely unexpected for me, we all made mistakes, so it was an open match until the end.
‘The most challenging aspect was creating a speech that connected all my main points together, because sometimes that’s the hardest bit.’
However, despite the anticipation and excitement of the win, Beluga Signature doesn’t all boil down to that one moment of declaring its champion. It’s a far more unique competition, which offers the chance to attend exclusive seminars and sessions with celebrated industry icons, such as Nico de Soto, Alex Kratena and Erik Lorincz, before bartenders decide if they’d like to enter or compete in that year’s competition.
‘It’s one of the only competitions where the prize is almost given before anyone competes,’ said Duff, who supervises the education programme.
Venturi will begin his prize journey imminently at Bar Convent Berlin and his fellow winners Van Wyk and Pittaluga will also be making appearances for the brand throughout the year.
The Beluga Signature 2019 Programme launches early next year – visit beluga-signature.com to learn more and take part.