Imbibe’s annual battle of the on-trade is back – and with the somms thrashing the bartenders last year to move into the overall lead, there’s an added edge of competition to this year’s training, as Gaëlle Laforest reports
Imbibe’s now legendary Bartenders v Sommeliers returns for the eighth year this July – with one side, at least, desperate to regain its pride. Last year’s sommelier team beat the bartenders by a comfortable 30 points, not only giving the wine arm of the on-trade a second consecutive win, but also, for the first time since the competition began, putting them in the lead overall, with four wins to three.
But this is a new year. There are no returning competitors, challenges have been updated and, to add further edge, each team’s coach has nominated a colleague or friend to be on the other team.
And so it was that both teams met with their coaches for an intensive day of training with just one thing in mind: winning the trophy at the grand final on the Centre Stage at Imbibe Live on 4 July.
Captain: Dominic Whisson, American Bar at The Savoy
Joe Hall, Satan’s Whiskers
Roberta Mariani, Bar Termini
Oli Pluck, The East Village
Robyn Wilkie, 7 Tales
Coach: Sandia Chang, Bubbledogs and Kitchen Table
Surprisingly, considering the history of this competition, it’s the bartender from furthest afield who shows up first for the team’s training day at Trishna in London’s Marylebone. ‘I stayed in London last night and accidentally picked a hotel just round the corner, it was lucky,’ explains Oli Pluck from The East Village in Leeds. That luck is short-lived, however, as it turns out Robyn Wilkie from 7 Tales is in a cab headed for the wrong venue.
While Wilkie makes her way to the right venue, coach Sandia Chang gets straight down to business. ‘This is the year,’ she thunders. ‘I’m not your typical badge-wearing sommelier, I’m just a big wine-lover; I learnt about wine on the floor. I hope we can show the sommeliers how creative and outside the box we are.It’s going to be good fun. Actually, no,’ she changes her mind. ‘This isn’t about fun. This is about winning!’
With that, Wilkie arrives just in time to join the team as they get stuck in with some whisky, led by Cellar Trends’ Freddie Lawrence. He presents the Scotch part of the line-up first. ‘With whiskies from Douglas Laing, what you see is what you get: the spirits aren’t coloured and you’d be surprised to know what ages are in there,’ he says. First up is honeyed Timorous Beastie, then Scallywag from Speyside, a fruitier liquid aged in sherry butts. Island blend Rock Oyster is followed by Big Peat, a big blend of malts from Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore and Port Ellen.
The pair of Japanese whiskies that follow – Akashi and Togouchi – are as different as can be. ‘Very elegant,’ says Bar Termini’s Roberta Mariani. ‘It almost doesn’t feel as if you’re drinking whisky,’ adds Wilkie. ‘It’s the easiest thing to drink in the world,’ sighs Joe Hall of Satan’s Whiskers’ after tasting Togouchi. Chang is both impressed and astounded by her charges. ‘How do you guys do this so early in the morning?’ she cries out.
It’s now time for Chang to give the team a crash course in wine tasting – with an unexpected approach to say the least. ‘I can’t tell you all about wine, so I’m just going to tell you how to win this round. Attack it like a CSI agent: it’s not about figuring out what’s in it, but what it’s not.’
As everyone starts announcing what aromas and flavours they’re getting, Chang gives more advice. ‘It’s all about the levels: are you tasting red or green apples? Cooked or straight out of the fridge?’ An upstate New York Riesling gets labelled as ripe, while the following German wine shows minerality. The last white, from New Zealand, is a ‘party-in-your-mouth kind of wine’, according to Chang. Mariani is confident they can just pick out the German Riesling and go from there. ‘It’s all about strategy,’ agrees Chang. ‘But don’t jump to conclusions; that’s what screws you.’
With that they move on to Pinots. The unfiltered Canadian Pinot is easy to pick out from its colour, while the Italian Pinot shows plenty of toast aromas, according to Dominic Whisson of the American Bar at The Savoy. ‘It’s like the old Italian man that sits outside and does nothing but smoke cigarettes and whistle at women all day,’ says Chang.
Things seem to be going well, but confidence is suddenly shaken as Chang passes around two mystery glasses to identify and the team gets only one right. ‘I think we need to have a good hard look at ourselves,’ sighs Hall.
Go big or go home. We’re bartenders, we’ve got big balls!
Next up is wine service, and Chang demonstrates how to fold the serviette ‘like a little taco’ so as to keep any wine stains out of sight. She then opens and pours a bottle of wine according to the Court of Master Sommeliers guidelines, which are the standard for this challenge. Whisson has a go and everyone agrees it’s an easy enough round.
The big match
So talk moves to wine and food matching as plates of tikka rolls and dhal get passed around. ‘Always look at textures: heavier food calls for heavier wines. But what makes you cooler is not looking at the protein but at the garnish,’ suggests Chang. ‘And make it sound good.’
‘Bullshit, basically,’ replies Whisson, making clear how the team plan to approach this round.
More matches are suggested – Riesling with everything, champagne with French fries – before Bibendum’s Chris Harag arrives to share a bit of saké knowledge, as it will also, for the first time, be part of the food-matching round. Wilkie is the only one who works with saké, so there are plenty of questions from around the table, covering subjects from polishing to glassware and serving temperature.
It’s soon time to crack open some bottles. The competition’s infamous magnum pour challenge, which always falls to the captain, has been upgraded to also include a saké and cider pour. Whisson’s taking on board the traditional saké overpour into a masu cup: ‘Next time I overfill a glass at work, I’ll just say it’s Japanese-style,’ he says.
The trickiest though, is pouring cider like an Asturian, with the arm holding the bottle straight up in the air, while the other is holding the glass down by the thigh. No-one’s done it or even seen it done before, and despite everyone’s best efforts, there’s much more cider on the floor than in the glass by the end.
So far, no one’s rushing to take on the captain’s job, so it’s decided that whoever is best at magnum work should just go for it. ‘It’s fucking heavy,’ Hall whispers, as he weighs the bottle of Jeio prosecco. Mariani’s the bravest of the team and she goes first, with a solid performance. ‘I thought it’d be much harder,’ she says.
Ultimately, Whisson is the closest to a perfect pour, and it’s decided he’ll be leading the bartenders’ team. ‘Got to go to the gym a bit before the final,’ he sighs.
Up to the challenge
Last order of the day is the champagne cascade, and the coach herself admits she can’t help. ‘I’ve never done one of those,’ she says. That’s not worrying the bartenders though – nor is the fact that the rules have been updated to reflect the teams’ temerity in the past years, with five coupettes now the minimum.
But six coupettes get placed on the bar. ‘Go big or go home. We’re bartenders, we’ve got big balls!’ announces Pluck by way of motivation.
The team gets cracking, moving coupettes this way and that until the angles are just right. As Hall starts pouring champagne everyone goes quiet. ‘So cool,’ whispers Chang. It’s looking good... only for everything to almost come crashing down when he starts dismantling, the glassware saved only by Pluck’s reflexes. ‘I find quickly might bethe way,’ is Hall’s advice.
This isn’t about fun. This is about winning!
Pluck follows it and nails it, but a lot of wine’s spilled over. Mariani gives it a go with five coupettes – it’s a much slower, quieter process, not helped by her shaky hands. But she tilts the glasses carefully and ends up with five almost equal measures.
‘Top job!’ exclaims Pluck, as they toast to the end of the day. ‘It’s going to be fun,’ says Mariani. ‘And we really need to win. I think we can smash it.’
Captain: Ben Porter, Kitchen Table
Harry Crowther, M Restaurants
Jonathan Kleeman, Social Eating House
Gus Pollard, The 10 Cases
Meg Ryan, Fox Fine Wines & Spirits
Coach: Chris Dennis, Sovereign Loss
The location for the sommeliers’ training is tricky to find – coach Chris Dennis’ bar Sovereign Loss has a confusing address, a plain black door and requires being buzzed in. And yet almost everyone finds it easily enough, with only Fox Fine Wines & Spirits’ Meg Ryan needing to be rescued from walking around Brixton’s chicken shops in confusion.
With everyone settled, Dennis gets on with stating the obvious. ‘I’d really like to win this, guys!’ Everyone chuckles – but agrees. ‘Let’s make sure we meet up between now and the semi-final, even if it’s just to hang out and have drinks. Hopefully we’ll become best buddies and this will be nice and easy.’
Hopefully we’ll become best buddies and this will be nice and easy
Cellar Trends’ Bryan Smith also has some general advice for the team. ‘After today you need to get behind the stick. There’s a wonderful bartending culture out there, so go out and visit bars, too,’ he says, before kicking off the whisky tasting.
Togouchi is first up, and Smith advises the bartenders to give it a nose as it stands still before they agitate it. For Kitchen Table’s Ben Porter, it’s got something of a fermented vegetable note. While in the next whisky, Akashi, he picks up sweet black pecan notes. ‘You should write the notes on the back of wine labels,’ suggests Social Eating House’s Jonathan Kleeman. ‘You’d make a fortune.’
On to the Scotch selection, and island blend Rock Oyster is first. ‘Straight away it feels more salty and saline,’ notes Gus Pollard of The 10 Cases. For Porter, Timorous Beastie is definitely sweeter and a little tropical. ‘It’s like a door opening to a warm light,’ Dennis suggests, eloquently. As for the next one, Scallywag, the colour is a big giveaway. ‘It’s finished in sherry casks – so you, more than the bartenders, should be able to pick out those sherry characters,’ Smith tells the team.
The last is Big Peat, a blend of Islay malts. ‘They’re my favourite,’ whispers a thrilled-looking Ryan as she noses the spirit. ‘I don’t think it’ll be hard to get that one,’ jokes M Restaurants’ Harry Crowther, as everyone gets a big waft of those peated aromas. All agree this will be an easy one to spot, but Kleeman thinks colour is the best strategy. ‘In the same way that we do with wine, we should do the visual first. We can pick them out just from that.’
It’s now time to get behind the stick, but not before Dennis demonstrates the two drinks on the menu for this year’s classic cocktail round: the Rebel Yell Bourbon Sweet Manhattan and the London No 1 Singapore Sling.
‘The spirit-to-vermouth ratio tends to be the backbone of many classic drinks,’ Dennis explains. ‘There are three types of Manhattan, and here you want a sweet vermouth to support the bourbon. It makes a Sweet Manhattan, which is my favourite – it’s not sweet at all; it’s perfectly balanced.’
Next up is the Singapore Sling, and Dennis just happens to be fresh off the plane from the city itself. ‘If you’re in 40°C heat and someone hands you one of those, you’ll be happy,’ he assures the team.
Kleeman gets behind the bar to give the Manhattan a go, and Ryan reads him the specs out loud as he goes. Dennis corrects a few things, but the final drink is a good effort. ‘I drink about six or seven of these a week,’ admits Kleeman.
Pollard looks assured enough as he walks up to make a Singapore Sling, but confusion sets in as he tries to figure out which jigger to use. Dennis reminds them they’ll need to work on their chat too – which isn’t a problem for Porter, who whips up a Manhattan and hands it to Ryan with an enthusiastic, ‘There you go darling! See how you enjoy it.’
Crowther is just finishing off his Singapore Sling, and he takes a tentative sip. ‘I definitely need to practise if I’m going to be doing that,’ he concludes.
Now, drinks in hand, the team settles down for lunch, a time Dennis chooses to go over some cocktail history, from Prohibition to the history of tiki, the latter being the theme for a punch challenge at the final. ‘You can go rogue, you can go nuts: it’s punch,’ sums up Dennis.
That’s when Bibendum’s Josh Butler arrives to break a few myths about saké. ‘Most people think it’s rice wine, but they couldn’t be more wrong. It’s closer to a rice beer.’ After a little taste, the team heads to the terrace to give the cider pour a go.
It’s a struggle for everyone, although Pollard looks more comfortable than most, going straight in without thinking about it. Still, the aim’s not perfect.
Back at the bar, Porter has the first go at the champagne cascade, choosing to keep to five coupettes. The stacking is assured, the pouring goes well... ‘Fuck it, I’m shaking too hard,’ he laments as he starts dismantling. ‘If you don’t shake, you don’t care enough,’ assures Dennis.
The glasses make it back on the bar in one piece though, and everyone claps. Ryan ups the stakes further by going for six, having to climb onto a chair to reach the top of the tower. ‘I don’t feel good about this,’ she says, but completes the challenge masterfully.
There’s only the magnum pour left to go, and Kleeman’s confident he can do it. But he loses it as he goes, and unhappily finishes half a glass short. It’s not that much off a perfect score, but still, the team decides to elect Porter as captain.
As the day wraps up, plans are made to meet up just a few days later for a second training session. This is obviously no game to anyone. The fight is on.
Blind tasting: Do try this at home...
Thanks to Trishna and Sovereign Loss for hosting the training sessions and for all their help. Thanks also to Sandia Chang and Chris Dennis for their time, help and expertise. Finally, thanks to Bibendum Wine and Cellar Trends for providing all of the wines and spirits, and for their contribution to training.
Photos: Justine Trickett