It’s a crucial year for the bartenders, as they try to win back the Bartenders v Sommeliers trophy for the first time in two years. Gaëlle Laforest looks on as the teams wrestle with impossible food-matches and fiendish cocktail mystery boxes in this year’s semi-final
Elliot Ball, The Cocktail Trading Co;
For eight years now, both sides of the trade have been taking up arms to fight for their honour in Imbibe’s annual Bartenders v Sommeliers competition – but never before have any of the teams taken it quite so seriously.
Since the first training session back in March, both teams have carried out extensive additional training; meeting up to taste the spirits again, to practise their cocktail-making, to drink champagne all over town – but mostly to create the team spirit they’ll no doubt need to win this year’s title.
It’s clearly boosted their confidence and made them eager to get going, because everyone arrives at Sovereign Loss in London’s Brixton bang on time for the semi-final – another first in this competition.
But as everyone settles down to get cracking with the first of five challenges today, the room goes quiet and it’s obvious none of them have lost sight of what’s at stake: the legendary trophy that will crown one team the best of the on-trade.
ROUND 1: BLIND TASTING
Up first today is the traditional blind-tasting round. Lined up in front of competitors are the three Rieslings, three Pinot Noirs and six whiskies they all tasted at training – they just need to figure out which is which. The nosing and tasting is methodical and silent – the teams need to be quick, as the first to have all their answer sheets in will win an extra five points.
The sommeliers confidently finish first, high-fiving as the bartenders continue. And that assurance is justified, as the somms end up winning this challenge, with M Restaurants’ Harry Crowther getting all the spirits right and the best overall score. ‘I’m surprised – when we trained last week I got the worst score on the team,’ he says. His teammate Meg Ryan, from Fox Fine Wines & Spirits, is the only one to get all the wines right.
With that, the sommeliers start the day a few points ahead – but, luckily for the bartenders, the next round is cocktail-focused.
SCORES: Bartenders 30, Sommeliers 40
ROUND 2: CLASSIC COCKTAILS
Judges get settled in as Crowther walks up to the bar, having been chosen at random to represent the sommelier team for this first cocktail challenge. He’s got to make a Manhattan. ‘I recommend a Sweet Manhattan – is that OK?’ he asks the judges. G Franklin gives him a resounding ‘no’. ‘Well, tough, because you’re getting it sweet,’ he replies.
He’s relatively at ease behind the bar, and doesn’t get too fazed by the judges’ tough questions, continuing to pour as he blags his way through some made-up Manhattan history. Judge Willie Lebus points out his shakes. ‘That’s an old school bartending technique that helps to aerate the flavours,’ he assuredly replies.
‘That’s really very good,’ praises Lebus, as the judges pass the drink around. All four are happy with the flavour in the drink, and are impressed by his multi-tasking – although The Cocktail Trading Co’s Elliot Ball notes his chat was ‘utter bollocks’.
Then it’s the turn of bartender captain Dominic Whisson from the American Bar at The Savoy. He gets started on his Singapore Sling, explaining with conviction that it was invented so women could drink alcohol while it looked like they were having fruit juice. But he’s soon looking a bit frazzled, and forgets to include the Bénédictine. ‘As it happens, I’m half-asleep,’ he jokes.
While the judges appreciate his use of fresh pineapple juice, brought ‘just in case’ by Satan’s Whiskers’ Joe Hall, they mark him down for the missing ingredient and for not following the garnish specs given at training.
‘That’s not how the American Bar would make a Singapore Sling, but he was being coached to a spec,’ rules Ball. And with that, the bartenders fall a little further behind…
SCORES: Bartenders 55, Sommeliers 72
ROUND 3: WINE SERVICE
This is a round that should be pretty straightforward: present, open and pour a bottle of wine for the party of judges. And yet the tension is palpable in the room as 7 Tales’ Robyn Wilkie kicks things off. She steps up to the table and introduces herself to the guests. ‘Is it Robyn with an I or a Y?’ Lebus asks.
As she replies, she forgets to present the label and goes straight into opening the bottle. She starts twisting her corkscrew in, with everyone quietly staring… and a very loud squeaky sound resonates. ‘She should get points for sound effects!’ argues the bartenders’ coach, Sandia Chang.
Wilkie pours a taster for judge Jane Parkinson, and though she mixes up the order slightly, she’s otherwise perfectly professional and the panel compliments her on her confidence and presentation. Lebus is amazed: ‘I just can’t believe she’s a bartender!’
Team captain Ben Porter, from Kitchen Table, is next up for the sommeliers. ‘Hello, I’m Ben with a B,’ he starts. ‘Who’ll be tasting the wine today?’ Parkinson raises her hand.
‘It’s my birthday,’ she says.
‘She’s 107,’ Lebus continues.
With that, the judges continue their pretend chatter while Porter chooses to open his bottle on his side station, away from the judges’ table – something that costs him the challenge.
‘He didn’t open the wine in front of us – that’s a real killer,’ says Lebus. As for Ball, he feels that the service was a
bit too casual.
Surprisingly, it’s a wine round that puts the bartenders back in the game, with Wilkie scoring much higher than sommelier captain Porter.
SCORES: Bartenders 87, Sommeliers 92
ROUND 4: FOOD MATCHING
It’s a studious lunch break for the teams, as they use the time to go over the food and drink menu for the next challenge, in which they will have to recommend drinks to go with the judges’ food orders. There’s no service required – the aim is to just be creative with the matches suggested, and to be a good host.
It’s the challenge that both teams seem to be fearing the most – and rightly so, it seems, as our judges turn into some of the most difficult customers you could possibly ever meet.
‘I’m allergic to soup,’ announces Franklin, as Social Eating House’s Jonathan Kleeman goes to take the table’s order. All judges have an allergy or other, various intolerances, and swap dishes around on the menu, yet Kleeman keeps his calm and assures everyone he can work around their preferences. But when they ask him to read their orders back, not everything’s remembered correctly.
As talk moves to drinks, Kleeman thinks on his feet and recommends some good matches, pairing each of Franklin’s courses from the tasting menu with different wines and chucking some spirits in there, too. He recommends the Malbec to go with Ball’s beefburger.
‘Why not the Pinot Noir?’ queries Parkinson. ‘The acidity in there would just clash with the pickled onions in the garnish,’ he explains, unperturbed – and remains serious even when Ball decides he’s having an orange mocha Frappuccino with his pudding.
‘I hate you all!’ he concludes.
There’s well-deserved applause from everyone in the room, before the bartenders’ Oli Pluck of The East Village walks up to the judges. He’s thought about taking a notepad with him, which proves necessary, as the judges’ orders edge into the plainly delirious. Franklin decides he is having cottage pie ‘without the cottage’ and a quartered orange, Lebus goes off-menu, Parkinson just wants sauce and fresh leaves, while Ball asks to start with an egg yolk.
Still, through all that Pluck remains a patient and accommodating host, and his matches are sharp: he suggests saké with the egg yolk, a bourbon sipper for Lebus’ steak tartare, and convinces Parkinson to try a cocktail with her pudding.
‘That was sublime,’ compliments Hall as Pluck finishes the round.
And the other judges agree. ‘Both thought on their feet well, but Oli was a cut above,’ says Parkinson. When it comes to knowledge, Pluck was also better prepared and best at delivering it, they find. ‘And he acknowledged it when he didn’t know something: that’s pretty much the distilled essence of good customer service,’ Ball says.
The scores end up very close, but Pluck gets a few extra points – meaning there’s only one point separating the teams as they go into the last challenge of the day.
SCORES: Bartenders 137, Sommeliers 138
ROUND 5: COCKTAIL CREATION
Wrapping things up is a cocktail competition classic: competitors are given a mystery box containing a mix of ingredients that they have to use in a drink. Each box contains a spirit they must use as base, and they’ve got to use at least two other ingredients from the box. To help, they have five minutes to look through the ingredients as a team and decide on an action plan.
Bar Termini’s Roberta Mariani is up first, and as she and her team discuss the ingredients, it’s clear the bartenders are in their element with this challenge. With Botran Reserva Blanca as her base, she goes for a twist on a Daiquiri, with pumpkin-spice syrup and peach purée. ‘It’s a beautiful, sunny day, so you don’t want something really boozy,’ she says, when asked why she’s shaking it for longer than usual.
Garnished with a pear fan dusted with Kool-Aid, her Solera gets the approval of judges. ‘Her presentation really was excellent. If I got that in a bar I’d be happy,’ says Ball. Still, she walks off looking sheepish. ‘No one tell Tony
C that I made a pear fan,’ she hisses.
Next up is Ryan, and she picks up the toughest box of all. ‘Absinthe is new. Cassis is new. I really like all these things,’ she says by way of motivation, as she picks up the ingredients. She rims a highball with Rainbow Dust and mixes La Fée Absinthe and cassis with Angostura Orange Bitters, lime and mint leaves. The drink gets topped with cream soda.
‘Have you got a name for that?’ asks Lebus. ‘How about What The Fuck?!’ suggests a bewildered Porter.
Ryan ultimately goes for The Serious Chris, and the judges are impressed that she’s managed to pull off a somewhat balanced drink. ‘It was a mean box – but she had a good manner and was confident behind the bar,’ notes Franklin.
Hall is next. ‘This is my dream box,’ he exclaims as he opens it. He chooses to use Beluga Vodka in a Treacle twist, with dry vermouth, Spanish Bitters and lychee juice. ‘It’s garnished with a cocktail umbrella and Haribo sweets because there’s no other way to garnish a drink,’ he says, as he hands his cocktail over.
A bit on the sweet side, The Whale Song is still a solid drink – and Hall’s manner gets him points, too. ‘I thought he was the most complete of the competitors,’ Lebus declares.
Gus Pollard from 10 Cases is last up, and he’s ready for a party. ‘We’ll start with Tiki Bitters, because we’re about
to have a good time!’ he cheers.
It’s joined by Casamigos Blanco tequila, fresh passion fruit, lime juice, Earl Grey syrup and ginger beer, then garnished with lime and passion fruit and topped with a Pot Kettle Black Porter float. ‘This drink is called Pot Kettle Black – for the simple reason that I’m a sommelier making drinks,’ he says.
Unfortunately, that’s also evident in the drink. Franklin finds there are too many flavours, and all agree the porter float doesn’t do much for the drink.
And with that last challenge, the bartenders get enough points to take top position. It also means they’re going into the final with an advantage, albeit a slender one, as nine points can easily be wiped out at the final stage. The clock is ticking until both teams meet again on Centre Stage at Imbibe Live on 4 July…
FINAL SCORES: Bartenders 196, Sommeliers 187
Huge thanks to Chris Dennis and the team at Sovereign Loss for hosting the competition and for all their help on
the day. Thanks also to Sandia Chang, Elliot Ball, G Franklin, Willie Lebus and Jane Parkinson for their time and expertise. Finally, many thanks to Bibendum Wine for all the wine, andto Cellar Trends for all the spirits.