The age-old rivalry between the pullers of corks and the shakers of drinks has been honed to a fine edge over nine years of Bartenders v Sommeliers. Clinton Cawood goes behind the scenes as this year’s two teams meet their coaches and prepare for the one-decade anniversary of this fabled competition
A full 10 years ago (which is about 30 in on-trade years), opposing teams of intrepid hospitality staff stepped decidedly outside of their comfort zones, learning each other’s skills for the sole purpose of doing battle in the inaugural Bartenders v Sommeliers competition. They would compete valiantly in the upstairs room of a west London gastropub, pitting their wits, dexterity, tableside manner and bad chat against one another, for glory, bragging rights and… not much else, actually.
Cut to 2018, and the sommeliers have the advantage, with five wins to the bartenders’ four. It’s a landmark year and there’s everything to play for. But they won’t have to go it alone. Each team of handpicked hospitality figures will have a wise and experienced coach to guide them through the months ahead and, for one team, to victory.
The Grand Crew
CAPTAIN: Melody Wong, Ten Trinity Square Private Club
Timothy Connor, Heddon Street Kitchen
Aurel Istrate, The Connaught
Edgaras Kazokaitis, Roka Aldwych
Euan McColm, Beaverbrook
COACH: Jim Wrigley, B&H Group and Andrew Copsey, independent trainer
There’s good news and bad news for the sommeliers before their training has even begun, as they gather at Four Degree on the Thames in London’s Vauxhall on a decidedly grey day. They’re temporarily a team member down, with Aurel Istrate unable to attend this training session. On the other hand, they’re up a coach. B&H Group’s Jim Wrigley has brought independent bar trainer Andrew Copsey with him, figuring two heads are better than one when it comes to shaping these young somms into competition-standard bartenders.
‘Just flirt outrageously and occasionally give yourself a layback,’ is Wrigley’s unofficial advice before the day’s busy schedule begins. ‘When you’re there on stage at the end of this, you’re going to win, because it just looks easy, and you’ve had a great time doing it.’
The team element is an important one for Wrigley, and will be a focus of the training, he explains. ‘We’ll be giving you an overview of the techniques for making mixed drinks, that are going to make you look like a slick-as-shit bartending team that’s been working together for ten years, even though none of you look old enough to have worked that long.’
As the four sommeliers introduce themselves, it emerges that there’s some bartending experience in the group already – a promising sign. Talk turns to the selection of a team captain – who is also the one to take on the responsibility of the 16-glass magnum pour at the final.
Perhaps even more importantly, the team needs a name. ‘We need a bit of branding to put the fear into the bartenders, because they think that sommeliers are all really stuffy and don’t have a sense of humour,’ says Wrigley. ‘So a pun or…’
‘You’re Barred,’ suggests Beaverbrook’s Euan McColm and, after a long pause, adds: ‘No, that’s crap.’
Perhaps both decisions can wait until later…
Behind the stick
And so to work, beginning with a quick introduction to the bar: layout, equipment, and some tips for moving effectively around other members of the team. ‘We’re not cab drivers, changing lanes without looking, shouting “Backs!”. It’s a little more like limousine service,’ says Copsey.
The team will be called on to make one of three classic cocktails in the competition – a Rob Roy, a Vodka Collins or a Corpse Reviver #2. First up behind the bar is Roka Aldwych’s Edgaras Kazokaitis and Ten Trinity Square Private Club’s Melody Wong, to stir a Rob Roy.
Picking up a bottle of Lustau Vermut Rojo, Copsey explains: ‘This is based on Amontillado and Pedro Ximénez sherry. It’s a bit sweeter than a sweet vermouth would generally be, but for this kind of drink that actually helps us out, as scotch isn’t as sweet as American whiskey.’
The scotch in question is Glenrothes Vintage Reserve, which the pair of somms mix, stir and pour under the watchful eye of their coaches, before it’s Heddon Street Kitchen’s Timothy Connor turn, this time with a Vodka Collins.
He takes his place behind the bar as Copsey explains some complex-sounding mathematics about the relative sweetness of 1:1 versus 2:1 sugar syrup, and Connor diligently leans over the bar to take some notes. As he finishes making his drink, Coach Wrigley gives the team a background story about the drink, to ensure their chat is up to scratch too.
‘Charm and a little bit of charisma are going to be the plus points on any damaging points on the day,’ summarises Copsey.
The final classic is the Corpse Reviver, and it’s McColm’s turn to show off some of his past bartending experience. With a few pointers from the coaches, he puts the drink together with ease, followed by a decidedly convincing shake.
It’s time for a working lunch, with the coaches talking the team through the mystery box cocktail creation round, as well as the chaos that is the mystery tiki punch round, all over some food from Four Degree. It’s a whistlestop tour of tips, facts, information and stories, with Wrigley at one point describing the Count Negroni as an ‘Italian playboy alcoholic’, and Copsey advising that ‘less is more, unless it’s tiki’.
‘Simple is better. Otherwise you’re like a kid going “I like red, I like yellow, I like green, I like purple,” and then it all makes brown,’ advises Wrigley.
After another quick (and inconclusive) brainstorm about the team name, everyone retires to a private dining room to be introduced to the six spirits they’ll have to identify in the competition’s blind tasting round. ‘Tasting is your milk and bread already, although there are some different aspects when it comes to spirits, compared to wine,’ says Wrigley. ‘The wine blind tasting we’d expect you to ace, although secretly bartenders do know a bit about wine – a lot of them will have WSET Level 2.’
Eleanor Brooke from sponsor Fields, Morris & Verdin is here to talk the sommeliers through the pair of gins and quartet of whiskies in front of them. First is the brand-new Berry Bros & Rudd London Dry Gin. ‘There’s a lot of citrus peel,’ begins McColm, nosing his glass. ‘Or it might be the lovely scented soap in the bathrooms.’
No.3 London Dry Gin is next, containing just six botanicals, and created in part by ‘Dr David Clutton, the only person to hold a gin PhD’, according to Brooke. And then it’s time for whiskey, with Texas Legation Batch 2 Bourbon. This is made using three different types of corn, and helpfully for the blind tasting has a distinctive dark colour.
A lesson in the effects of different casks comes in the form of a pair of whiskies from The Glenrothes, namely a Bourbon Cask Reserve and a Sherry Cask Reserve, and the tasting concludes with Berry Bros & Rudd Classic Range Peated Cask, amid various tips for the somms from both Brooke and the coaches.
The team chooses this moment, perhaps inspired by the spirits in front of them, to elect their team captain, with all eyes turning to Wong. ‘Well, if I couldn’t handle a magnum my boss would kill me,’ she says, accepting the role.
Tower of bubble
The sommeliers continue to try various pun team names on for size, and ultimately settle on The Grand Crew, inadvertently naming themselves in homage to last year’s bartender team, Premier Crew. You just can’t keep a good pun down.
Only one challenge remains to practice. The champagne cascade. ‘Has anyone done one of these before?’ asks Cospey.
‘We don’t do that anymore. It’s a waste of bubbles!’ says Wong.
Nevertheless, she has a go at building the tower, as Connor checks its stability from various angles by blowing on it. ‘Do you get clear Blu Tack?’ wonders Wrigley.
It’s Kazokaitis that follows through, finishing his pour and looking very pleased with himself – until he’s told he needs to dismantle too, that is.
‘It’s like jenga, but more complicated!’ he says, after doing so. ‘I suppose the only difference is that there will be loads of people watching.’
‘On a wobbly stage…’ adds Wrigley.
Putting some more training sessions with their coaches in the diary, the somms call it a day.
CAPTAIN: Gergő Muráth, Devil's Darling
Luke Robinson, Cub
Jess Hellicar, Satan's Whiskers
Kris Grimes, Milk & Honey
Georgia Billing, Sexy Fish
COACH: Jonathan Kleeman, Four Degree
It’s tradition in Bartenders v Sommeliers to make note of the relative punctuality of each team on their training day, and to use this to reinforce stereotypes regarding the two on-trade groups. Bartenders are half-expected to roll up late, dishevelled and hungover, while somms… well, if they’re not in a suit, and maybe 15 minutes early, it’s almost a disappointment.
So it’s on an early (by bartender standards) morning in April that a full bartender team stands around at Four Degree, before the appointed time, waiting on their sommelier coach.
‘Wine makes me sleepy,’ says Milk & Honey’s Kris Grimes on hearing about the planned blind tasting training today of both spirits and wine.
‘A good thing all I have to do tonight is drink rum…’ replies Devil's Darling’s Gergő Muráth,
They might be punctual, and all be holding notebooks, but there’s no question they’re bartenders.
When their coach, Four Degree’s Jonathan Kleeman, does eventually arrive, he wastes no time in sharing some of the wisdom gained during his time on the sommelier team in 2016. ‘Personality is important. Bad personality works too – seriously, read some of the quotes.’
‘Like showmanship? There’s two ex-London Cocktail Club kids here…’ Muráth says. And when there’s some talk of sommeliers potentially being a bit wanky, his suggestion is ‘to outwank them’.
‘Please don’t say that out loud ever again,’ is Robinson’s response.
Grape and grain
In addition to the same spirits training from Fields, Morris and Verdin that the sommeliers received the previous day, in which the bartenders are clearly in their element, they’re being trained on the selection of wines from Bibendum that they’ll encounter in the competition’s blind tasting. And as an added bonus, Bibendum’s representative is last year’s BvS bartender coach Christina Schneider.
Amid suggestions for the best approach to tasting these, and telling them apart in the tasting, Schneider has no shortage of background for the team about the wines and the grapes they’re made from. After the Tim Adams Fairfield Block Semillon, there’s Truchard’s unmistakably Californian Chardonnay, and a Viognier Collines Rhodaniennes from the Rhône’s Cave Dumazet’s, with a nose, according to Schneider, of Lipton Peach Iced Tea – an easy one to spot, she reckons.
‘I don’t want to alarm anyone,’ begins Hellicar as they move into the second half of the wine tasting, ‘but I only started drinking red wine this year.’
A (100% Tempranillo) crianza from Ribera del Duero’s Bodegas Protos is the first of the reds, followed by an Uco Valley Malbec from Catena. To tell the two apart, Schneider suggests looking for the black fruit in the Malbec, as opposed to red fruit in the Tempranillo. ‘The Catena is also a little less austere,’ she adds.
‘Austere… what a great word to describe a liquid,’ says an impressed Hellicar. ‘Also, how do you spell that?’
Best's Great Western Bin 1 Shiraz concludes the wine tasting, with fewer pepper characteristics than expected, but plenty of fruit notes, like cassis, to set it apart, as well as very little evident oak.
Sitting down to lunch, the team and their coach discuss some of the other challenges they’ll be facing in the competition, including those that won’t be trained today. ‘It’s easy to feel confident about the mystery box now, but it’s completely different when you’re on the day and under pressure, with all eyes on you. And they’ve put mustard in the box,’ says Billing.
With everyone sitting around the table, Kleeman takes the chance to give his team a crash-course in food-and-wine matching. ‘Don’t overcomplicate it, and explain why you’re pairing something – it’s like showing your working out in school,’ he suggests, going on to list some basic matching rules.
As both the lesson and lunch draw to a close, the bartenders prepare themselves for some practical training. While the food-match round is a theoretical one, a representative from each team will also be required to serve a bottle of wine to a table, following Court of Master Sommeliers service standards.
‘Don’t tell them “This wine is good because it comes from this hill, and this hill is exciting.” No one wants to hear that,’ says Kleeman. ‘As much as sommeliers want to hear that, normal people don’t care about the clone of the grape variety you’re serving them. Go the story route - more personal.’
‘Good thing we’re good at bullshitting,’ laughs Muráth.
Each of the bartenders take their turn, serving imaginary wine in made-up scenarios, following Kleeman’s tips.
‘Never work with children, animals or bartenders,’ Kleeman says to himself at one point.
When it comes to Grimes’ turn to serve the group, Billing, playing host, looks up. ‘Tonic wine please,’ she says, adding: ‘I think we need it.’
A brief discussion about Buckfast ensues, and the seed of a team name is planted. And with that, it’s magnum-and-cascade time.
‘The magnum pour is as much about technique as it is about strength,’ says Kleeman. With that in mind, it’s time to identify the bartender for the job, and in doing so, the team’s captain too.
‘I’ll do it,’ says Hellicar. ‘I just need a bionic arm.’
The team ultimately settles on Muráth for the challenge, and therefore the role of captain, partially as a result of his description of himself as an exhibitionist.
The team begins stacking coupes for the final training session of the day – the champagne cascade. The rule is a minimum of five coupes, and that’s how many Billing stacks into a solid tower, filling and dismantling with apparent ease.
On the other hand, Grimes goes for six, which goes well until it comes time to dismantle, when some instability in the tower causes him to use two hands – he’s saved the glassware, but that’ll never fly in the competition.
Fortunately there’s time for Tonic Wine to perfect that cascade, and all of the other skills they’ve been introduced to today, before facing The Grand Crew in battle.
Many thanks to the team at Four Degree for hosting the two training days, and for all their help on the day. Thanks to coaches Jim Wrigley, Andrew Copsey and Jonathan Kleeman for their time and expertise, and to sponsors Fields, Morris & Verdin and Bibendum both for stock and for their contribution to the training.