Has there ever been a rivalry more intense than the one between bartenders and sommeliers? Definitely. But for Imbibe’s Bartenders v Sommeliers challenge, we disregard the general camaraderie between the two professions and pit them against each other in a battle of hospitality skill and smack talk that’s pretty entertaining to witness.
It’s been this way for the past decade – and now, in the competition’s 11th and final year, the stakes are higher than ever. Last year the bartenders won, bringing each team’s victory count to five. With both the bartenders and the somms now on even ground, it’s time to see which on-trade group will take home the glory once and for all.
For the 2019 competition, we’re kicking things off with a training session at Trade Soho, where both teams gather to learn the professional skills of their opponents. The somms are to be educated by Jim Wrigley, Bourne & Hollingsworth cocktail extraordinaire, and the bartenders will learn the ways of wine from Nigel Lister.
Unfortunately, two bartenders can’t make the training day, leaving their teammates to pick up the slack. Good thing everybody loves an underdog…
Georgia Billing, Din Tai Fung
Will Hawes, Callooh Callay (not present)
Jordan Moore, Trullo
Gergő Muráth, Trailer Happiness (not present)
Robyn Wilkie, Liquorette
Quentin Loisel, Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms
Mattia Mazzi, The River Café
Charles Pashby-Taylor, Justerini & Brooks
Romain de Courcy, Trade Soho
Gergely Barsi Szabo, Bibendum
For the semi-finals, each team will have to identify six blind-tasted spirits and the grape varieties of six blind-tasted wines.
As Lister begins his wine lesson, all the competitors are listening attentively. ‘Lesson one: these are white wines, which is why they’re in an ice bucket,’ he elucidates. He takes them through three whites and three reds, giving them tips for identifying each.
‘I’d smell them all, make the decision between which is the Graves and which is the Chardonnay, and then you know what’s left.’
The somms are naturally more comfortable offering their tasting notes for each wine. ‘The Cab Franc has gone through malo, full malo, which is odd,’ says Charles Pashby-Taylor.
Soon the bartenders find their feet with the wines, too. ‘The Shiraz smells like a hangover to me,’ offers Robyn Wilkie of Genuine Liquorette.
With the wines tasted, it’s time to move on to spirits. Wrigley takes the floor, directing his lesson to the somms.
‘Last year, only one somm got all six spirits right in the tasting. Not to scare you or anything,’ he says. The bartenders look gleeful – until they learn that only one bartender nailed all the spirits last year, too. Time to study up.
The education continues
With a base knowledge of wines and spirits under their belts, the teams split up for more specialised training with their designated coach.
Lister walks the bartenders through the wonderful world of wine and food matching. ‘There are some rules when it comes to pairing, but you break them all the time,’ he explains. ‘Use your bartender chutzpah and be confident. Often what people expect to work, doesn’t.’
Meanwhile, Wrigley and his somm crew head to the bar to get a grip on some classic cocktails. ‘You need to approach the cocktail round as if you’re actually serving a guest,’ Wrigley says. ‘And do not walk off the bar until you’ve cleaned your kit!’
As the bartenders find the perfect wine match for sesame-crusted tuna, the somms step behind the stick to whip up a Negroni, a Mojito, a Pornstar Martini and a Whisky Sour. Wrigley points out a tiny but critical error as The River Café’s Mattia Mazzi strains the latter drink over ice: ‘You should have tasted it after the first shake, so you could adjust it.’
Brimming with newfound knowledge, both teams gather at the bar for training on one final task – the daunting magnum pour. ‘In my 10 years working as a somm, I only had to do this once,’ Lister says. Bartender Georgia Billing of Din Tai Fung steps up to the challenge.
Billing starts pouring consistent amounts into each glass – but when she arrives at the last one, she finds a considerable amount of liquid left in the bottle. The group sighs.
But wait! What treachery is this? There are only 15 glasses on the bar instead of the necessary 16. Could some cunning somm have snatched the last glass to put his team ahead?
To be honest, it’s unlikely. Still, in the mud-slinging, bad-chatting spirit of BvS, we’ll just pretend that it was.
The semi-finals of Bartenders v Sommeliers are set to take place 28 May, and the finals will be held on Centre Stage at Imbibe Live, 1 July. Stay tuned…