Few cocktail competitions offer a prize, and competition process, as exciting as the Southern Comfort Southern Showdown. And it's a known fact, as hundreds of applicants were whittled down to just a handful of bartenders during the UK-wide regional heats.
It's a brand that embodies its heritage and hometown more than most. Created in New Orleans by Martin Wilkes Heron in 1874, the brief for the 2018 Southern Showdown nodded its head to the Crescent City, tasking bartenders around the country to create a cocktail inspired by the spirit of their hometown.
Regional heats took place in Scotland, the North, the Midlands and the South, culminating in two London heats, and it was at east London's The Gibson where the London leg kicked off.
Judged by UK brand ambassador Christian Tirel, Southern Showdown 2017 champion Nicole Sykes and 2016 champion Matt Whiley, ten bartenders gathered for a day of fierce competition. Judged on authenticity, technique, look, taste, championing and knowledge of the brand, the bartenders were tasked with recreating their entry cocktail, in just eight minutes.
Awakened by serves of Southern Comfort Black and cola, garnished with a slice of orange, the 10 competitors, Antonio Franzese of Quaglino's, Yautcha City's Aron Szatmari, NOLA's Dario Guaglione, Felix Cohen of Every Cloud, The Fat Bear's Gareth Rees, Scarfes Bar's Giacomo Brunelli, Giovanni Nanni Graziadei of 69 Colebrook Row, Lorenzo Gavelli of Little Bat and Bar Bouloud's Zach Zafar, went head-to-head.
With presentations out the way, it was down to the judges to decide who made it through to the UK final, one taking place on the River Thames, aboard Mississippi-style paddle steamer, The Dixie Queen. Competition was strong, but Giacomo Brunelli of Scarfes Bar came out on top, winning himself a ticket to the Dixie Queen UK final next month.
His serve, Marliana's Time, championed Southern Comfort 100 Proof, which he mixed with a brigidino cookie distillate, toasted chestnut horchata and Guatemalan cold brew coffee, all homemade. His serve was inspired by his childhood growing up in Pistoia, Italy, where it was common for his family and friends to drink coffee in the late afternoon, after lunch. As a child, he would mix the strong coffee with other creamy ingredients to mellow the flavours, providing the perfect inspiration for his Southern Showdown cocktail.
The journey to NOLA (Roman Road)
With so many world-class bars and bartenders in the capital, it was only fitting a second regional heat take place, and the second heat couldn't be in a more perfect location.
Taking place at the newly opened NOLA Roman Road, competitors and judges – Sykes, Bourne & Hollingsworth Group's Jim Wrigley and NOLA's co-founder Ben Clark – were transported to the mysterious streets of the French Quarter, where another 10 top-bartenders where ready to battle it out. Bartenders included Karel Varga or Mr Fogg's Residence, The Beast's Scott Addison, Peter Konkoly of Coya Restaurant, Original's Sin's Tom Loosli and Sofia Pinckard, Thomas Solberg of Black Rock, Leonardo Filippini of the Beaufort Bar at the Savoy, The Red Bar's Sara Ricchiutu, The Churchill Bar and Terrace's Giacomo Guarnera and Troels Knudsen of MASH.
From a bar championing whisky in all its forms, Black Rock's Thomas Solberg took the title of London's second regional heat champion, earning himself another ticket onto the Dixie Queen, and the UK final.
His serve, Laksen, was inspired by the his hometown of Bergen, Norway, where rhododendron bushes bloom for two weeks of the year, he told the tale of picking the blooms and sucking the sweet nectar, which is known as crazy honey. This sweet liquid provided the backbone for his cocktail, a combination of Southern Comfort Black, rhubarb 'crazy' honey, grapefruit juice and cucumber shrub.
'I'm super stoked, really really happy!,' exclaimed Solberg on his win. 'The competition was great, I know we all say this but here it was genuinely true. The standard was super high and everyone did so well, the drinks were amazing.
'It's now time to focus on the final,' he continued. 'I'll raise the game a little bit too, I'm thinking strawberry laces...'
So, what prize exactly will the ultimate UK winner claim aboard the Dixie Queen next month? Along with bragging rights, the winner, along with second and third place, will travel to Southern Comfort's home of New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail. There, they will take on their Irish and Australian counterparts in the global final, along with enjoying all the city and event has to offer.
And, it doesn't end there... as the 2019 Southern Showdown also needs a judge, and that falls to the 2018 winner, of course. The 2018 winner will travel back to New Orleans, meaning the Southern Showdown champion wins two trips to the brand's hometown. We told you it was good.
The UK final will take place on 21 May, on the River Thames, in front of media, an illustrious judging panel, and past and present competitors. And as for the winners of the regional heats, it's one step closer to NOLA....
Photos by ABV Media