It’s back – the challenge where somms get to experience life behind the stick, and bartenders get to match obscure grape varieties with even more obscure dishes. Isabella Sullivan watches as the teams gather to learn the super powers of their opponents
Now in its ninth year, Imbibe’s legendary Bartenders v Sommeliers competition returns this July, sponsored by Bibendum and Berry Bros & Rudd. Last year, the bartender team thumped the sommeliers by 21 points, levelling the tally at four wins each in the process. With one team’s coach in particular on a mission to regain his pride, the teams met for a rigorous day of training – a pre-season limber-up before battle proper commences. Sights were set on just one thing: winning that glittering trophy in front of the crowds at the Imbibe Live Centre Stage in July.
Bartenders – Premier Crew
Captain: Will Hawes, Disrepute
Sam Ameye, Swift
Jenny Griffiths, Ten Mill Lane
George Krastev, Found
Lewis Parry, The Curious Cat
Coach: Christina Schneider, Som Saa
Fresh off a 5am Megabus from Cardiff, it’s Ten Mill Lane’s Jenny Griffiths who makes it to Yauatcha City in Broadgate Circle before the doors are even open. With Will Hawes and George Krastev arriving in a service elevator and Lewis Parry from Grimsby appearing shortly after, followed by a limping ‘I’ll have it checked out after this’ Sam Ameye of Swift, everyone is present and correct – not accounting for Sam’s gammy foot – and so training can begin.
Basically, beef + Pinot = nice
With team captain Hawes hailing from Disrepute, the very same bar as sommelier team coach, Chris Dennis, rivalry is even more intense this year. ‘When I heard Chris was coaching the sommeliers again, I knew I had to do this,’ he growls.
Coach Christina Schneider introduces herself to the team. Former bar manager of Happiness Forgets and the current bar manager of Som Saa, as well as being an expert on all things wine, she has a certain affinity with the bartender team.
First off, the five familiarise themselves with the spirits that will be blind-tasted in the competition, led by Berry Bros & Rudd’s Ellie Brooke. First on the tasting mat are Junipero and No 3 Gin.
‘No 3 is your safe classic, while Junipero has a little more kick – it’s 49.6% abv, so it makes for a really great Martini,’ Schneider explains.
The team agrees that identifying the gin will be easy, with Junipero packing much stronger flavours. ‘Sip, swirl and breathe out through your nose – it’s the best way to test for abv,’ advises Schneider, though with most of the whiskies at a similar abv – and only a 7% difference with one – this could prove quite challenging.
Next, it’s on to whisky with a flight of Glenrothes Vintage, Sherry Cask and Peated Cask Reserve. The peat’s a dead giveaway, agrees the team. Schneider looks at Hawes’ handwritten notes, ‘Will, how can you possibly read that?’ she asks. ‘I don’t know if I will again,’ he replies.
On to Berrys’ Single Malt Speyside – the oldest in the flight. ‘It tastes like dried fish – you know, the stuff you pull apart and buy from the market on Kingsland Road… in a good way,’ notes Ameye.
Time for wine
After the ease of the spirits training – something they’re all familiar with – it’s on to one of the most challenging rounds of training, the blind wine tasting. The team, unsurprisingly, isn’t feeling as confident here. But luckily, Bibendum’s Sophia Charow arrives to help out.
‘I understand you’re all bartenders, but trust me, this is going to be easier than spirits,’ she reassures them.
Light reds and aromatic whites are the theme of this year’s flights, with Prophet’s Rock Dry Riesling up first. Flavours of green apple and notes of minerality are thrown around. ‘I taste plastic – a good plastic, a fresh plastic,’ notes Parry.
Other whites include a Spanish Albariño and an Austrian Grüner Veltliner. Everyone instantly identifies a savoury punch of mushrooms on the palate from the Grüner – a dead giveaway.
The red flight sees an appearance from the Chilean Garage Wine Co’s Old Vine Pale. With the deceptive appearance of a darker rosé it looks as if it will be easy to pick out in a line-up. But, alas, the reds are all confoundingly similar in colour.
‘Oh my God, it’s delicious,’ exclaims Ameye. ‘It tastes like strawberry sweets.’
Schneider guides the team through the characteristics of each grape, suggesting they mix up their neighbour’s glasses and then put them in the right order. Ameye identifies the Old Vine Pale with ease but struggles to differentiate between the Pinot and Beaujolais.
Where the sommeliers have got class, we’ve got ego
‘One smells like you’re walking into a farmyard and one smells like a field of wild strawberries – I think it’s going to be easy,’ says Griffiths, identifying which is which between the Josef Chromy Pinot Noir and the Marcel Lapierre Morgon.
Things are looking good for the team, when it’s time to move onto wine service.
Guided by the unforgiving Court of Master Sommeliers guidelines, Schneider gets to work training the team in the art of meticulous and precise wine service.
‘We’re still sexist with wine service,’ reveals Schneider. ‘So, it’s ladies first, then the host last.’ She demonstrates how to open a bottle, wiping the top with a serviette as she goes, before directing where to leave reds (at the table) and whites (in an ice bucket).
‘If the cork breaks off, can we use a speed pourer?’ asks Parry. Everyone agrees that with some brushing up at home it will be easy enough.
Buns & Beaujolais
After studying all things grape, and then service standards, the team moves out to the Yauatcha terrace for some lunch, and a spot of food-and-wine-matching – no rest for the wicked. With an array of dim sum to hand, Schneider guides the team through the five tastes, selecting foods and challenging them to pair with wine.
Plates of pork belly and rice noodle rolls make their way around the table.
‘Let’s start with the basics of matching. In wine, we match sugar with sugar and acidity with fat,’ she says, starting with a Riesling and cucumber match, before choosing a specific dim sum match for each wine on the table.
This year, saké also features as an option for the food-and-wine-pairing round. With Schneider straight off a plane from Japan, she runs through the basics. ‘The first rule in Japan,’ she says, ‘is never pour your own saké.’
The team are most worried about this round, and take extra time to pick Schneider’s brain. ‘This is something they do every day – the sommeliers will have this in the bag,’ worries Found’s Krastev.
‘If it comes up in the tasting, basically beef + Pinot = nice,’ shrugs Parry. And with that, the ‘break’ is over and it’s back inside to crack open the fizz for the infamous magnum pour challenge.
Falling to the captain, Hawes lines up 16 flutes and works out the perfect 94ml line. Opening the magnum, he takes his hand off the top for a second and the cork shoots up into the ceiling, spraying fizz everywhere. Composure regained, Schneider tops it back up with wine and the slightly soggy captain is good to go.
It takes a full 20 minutes to fill the 16 flutes, but he’s near-enough perfect, finishing the last glass with nothing in the bottle to spare. ‘As long as we find 94ml, we’ll be fine,’ assures Griffiths.
Asturian cider-pouring – throwing cider through the air from bottle into glass – is something no-one on the team is even familiar with. Since it’s shaping up to be a messy round, the team heads back out to the terrace. By the end, the floor and the participants are covered head to toe in red, sticky Spanish cider.
With the traning day coming to a close there’s only one thing left to tackle… the champagne cascade. The rules changed last year to include a minimum of five glasses, so six are delicately placed in front of the eager team.
‘Is it just me, or do we go big or go home?’ asks Parry. ‘Where the sommeliers have got class, we’ve got ego,' added Griffiths.
Motivation in place, they get to work constructing a tower that champagne will easily slip down. Deciding not to stack directly on top of each other, as done in previous years, a sturdy pyramid stands.
Hawes starts pouring, but reaches to straighten the top glass…
‘Don’t touch it!’ the others scream. Luckily, nothing comes crashing down, and the tower stays strong. He twirls the top coupe and all six glasses are pretty much equally filled.
‘We’ve got this guys, we have to beat Chris,’ insists Hawes.
Sommeliers – Devil’s Share
Captain: Charles Pashby-Taylor, Dabbous
Massimo Cappai, Vinoteca
Kévin Dupont, Yauatcha City
Benedict Norton, OXO Tower
Coach: Chris Dennis, Disrepute
The sun is shining brightly in Bloomsbury as members of the sommelier team arrive for a day
of spirits and cocktails and more cocktails.
Descending into the depths of the seductive Bloomsbury Club Bar, the team loses all idea of time and space… perhaps the perfect state for what’s coming up.
I think this time, we’re just going to try and win
Unexpectedly down to a team of four, on the surface it looks as if the sommeliers are at a disadvantage… But coach Chris Dennis isn’t fazed, ‘This time, we’re just going to try and win,’ he asserts.
First up is spirits training, with a replica tasting by Berry Bros & Rudd. ‘It should be disconcerting drinking spirits before 11am,’ says Dabbous’ Charles-Pashby Taylor, ‘but it’s five o’clock somewhere.’
‘Or someone’s birthday,’ adds Dennis.
The group breezes through the gins, but whisky proves more challenging, and they take care to nose each glass meticulously, identifying the sherry and peat easily enough – it’s a strong start.
‘I like this, it doesn’t give me the peaty shivers,’ remarks a suprised OXO Tower’s Benedict Norton. Time for a few words of encouragement from coach Dennis: ‘You guys have really, really fine palates – you’ll be absolutely fine,’ he soothes.
With the spirits tasting taken care of, it’s time for Dennis to introduce the three cocktails (one more than last year) that are on the menu for this year’s classic cocktail round: the Aviation (Junipero’s signature), French 75 and Martinez.
First up behind the stick is Pashby-Taylor, who, Dennis jokes, ‘learnt to bartend in his garden’. He takes it on the chin, bashing out an Aviation that tastes ‘almost the same’ as Dennis’ example. ‘Shaky, shaky, strainy, strainy,’ he hums. His bar chat might need a bit of work...
Yauatcha’s Kévin Dupont is next, and he stirs up an extra-boozy Martinez, all the while chatting the team through the process. ‘If you do it with confidence, you can get away with it,’ he says confidently. ‘Just like wine,’ agrees Pashby-Taylor. They just can’t help themselves.
Sipping on a carefully constructed French 75, Pashby-Taylor reveals that this is the first time he’s drunk anything alcoholic since last week, ‘when my face fell off’, he hastily explains.
Next, the team moves on to the (for somms) infamous and super-challenging mystery box round. Given a mismatched box of ingredients, the team has to use the base spirit and at least two ingredients to create a well-balanced cocktail.
‘This is hard,’ notes Dennis. ‘Bartenders have to do it four or five times a week.’
A box containing lychee purée, Vermut Lustau, smoked syrup, Earl Grey syrup, Junipero, limes, Dip Dabs and mint is presented to Norton. The presence of the thought-to-be-long-lost Dip Dab sparks excitement in the group.
Norton whips up a gin, Earl Grey syrup and lime creation, garnished with fresh mint and a retro Dip Dab rim.
Now it’s the turn of Vinoteca’s Massimo Cappai. Dennis advises him to take four ingredients, shake and serve up. He uses lime, passionfruit syrup, mango purée, Karlsson’s Gold Vodka, The King’s Ginger and garnishes with a cinnamon-sprinkled apple fan. ‘I mean, I wouldn’t order it, but it could be what you want on the beach,’ remarks Dennis. Both are drinkable and well presented, and, with that, it’s lunch.
‘I think I’ve had too much sugar,’ says Norton, discarded Dip Dab in mouth.
Over lunch, Dennis introduces the punch round and the history of Tiki – the theme of the punch challenge at the final.
‘Punch is great, but we’re going to spend a day doing it back at my bar,’ says Dennis. ‘Right now, we’ll drink some rum. Rum is like the Wild West – you get away with doing whatever you want with it.’
For the Asturian cider-pour round, it’s decided that the street is the best place to try it, saving the cream interiors of the terrace from a sticky, red river.
Unsurprisingly, cider goes flying as the team all take their turn. It’s decided the higher the better, when it comes to technique and, with that agreed, everyone decides to just go for it on the day.
Just before the street turns completely red, it’s down to The Bloomsbury Club’s fairy-light-adorned terrace, where Bibendum’s Jess Wright has arrived to direct the team’s attention to saké.
The saying about pouring with two hands to make sure the pourer doesn’t have a dagger is also brought up. ‘We’ll have to pat the bartenders down to check for daggers,’ determines Pashby-Taylor. ‘No blades, no daggers.’
After tasting the Tenzan Junmai Saké and going through pouring, it’s down to the most feared of challenges – the champagne cascade.
A cascade of dreams
‘Has anyone actually ever done one of these?’ asks a concerned Dennis.
‘I have,’ deadpans Norton, ‘every day. Table of six? Here you go guys.’
Jokes aside, it’s a serious undertaking. With six coupes placed on a barrel, the team go as big as the bartenders, using all six to create a vertical tower, stacking them directly on top of each other. The coupes are heavier than usual, and it’s looking a little wonky. Apprehension fills the air as Norton begins pouring.
Combined with a slightly wonky floor, on a slightly wonky barrel – maybe not the best choice of surface for such a task – the tower begins to topple. Crashing to the floor, only two coupes are saved by Norton’s lightning reflexes.
‘Bollocks, we’ll just wing it on the day,’ sighs Pashby-Taylor, with no other lighter coupes to play with. And, with that, they pour the remaining champagne into flutes and toast what they are sure will
be impending success.
Thanks to Yauatcha City and The Bloomsbury Club Bar for hosting the training session. Thanks also to Christina Schneider and Chris Dennis for their time, help and expertise. Finally, thanks to Bibendum and Berry Bros & Rudd for providing all of the wines and spirits, and for their contribution to training.