With the scores level and personal scores to settle, the stakes for this year’s Bartenders v Sommeliers were higher than ever. Isabella Sullivan watches as the teams wrestle with saké, speed-tasting, goat curry and pumpkin cocktails
For nine years, Imbibe’s annual Bartenders v Sommeliers competition has been shaking up the industry, calling on worthy fighters to take to the floor to defend the honour of their profession. Who is top dog in the on-trade? There's only one way to find out.
And this year, with the score since the competition started at four wins each, the stakes are high.
In addition to that, one coach in particular is on a mission to reclaim his pride: last year’s losing sommelier team coach Chris Dennis. Dennis has been hosting some serious sessions of extra spirits training for his sommelier charges, with the team regularly meeting to shake up some classic – and creative – cocktails (and drink a lot of them in the process).
Their rivals are also highly motivated. The bartenders have spent the six weeks between the first training day and the semi-final meticulously working on cocktail specs and all things wine throughout the night…
A gentlemanly contest for amateurs? Forget it. This year, the gloves are off.
On a rainy day in London, the teams have no problem with descending into basement party bar London Cocktail Club. With everyone assembled and the playlist pondered over, the teams prepare for perhaps one of the most intense days of their lives. Who will win that legendary trophy at Imbibe Live?
Judges: Bobby Hiddleston, Swift; Tom Forrest, wine educator; Bethany Keating, Bibendum;
Jess Cheeseman, Fields, Morris & Verdin
Round 1: Blind tasting
Does everyone want to get twirly today?
Sticking to tradition, up first is the blind tasting round, covering all wines and spirits learnt in their training. Under the low, swinging lights, the teams face off, tasting a Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Albariño, Beaujolais, Pinot Noir and Garage Wine Co Old Vine Pale, along with four whiskies and two gins.
The bar quickly goes silent, with judges and coaches looking on in apprehension. Unlike most tastings, speed is an issue, since the team that is the first to have all their answers filled in will trouser an extra five points – an early bonus.
The bartenders finish first, high-fiving across the table, and rightly so. Not only do they get an extra five points for finishing first, but The Curious Cat’s Lewis Parry is the only contestant to get all 12 liquids correct. Oxo Tower’s Giordano Ghiraldotti nails all six spirits, but it still amounts to a hefty early lead for the citrus-botherers.
Bartenders 36 Sommeliers 26
Round 2: Classic Cocktails
With the ball in their court, the bartenders couldn’t be in a better place to begin round two, right in their comfort zone with classic cocktails. The judges gather around the bar as Ladies and Gentleman’s Jenny Griffiths is picked to go first, much to her dismay.
‘Does everyone want to get twirly today?’ she asks, ‘not drunk, just twirly.’ She gets to make a Martínez, which she seems confident with.
Passing it round, all four judges seem very pleased with the final product. ‘There’s excellent flavour,’ notes judge Bobby Hiddleston. ‘Really good depth and balance.’ It seems her chat was also on point, with judges praising her storytelling and fun manner.
Bartenders are renowned for making up terrible, terrible bullshit
Up next, the sommeliers, with team captain Charles Pashby-Taylor taking over the LCC stick. ‘I’m making an Aviation,’ he reveals. Making himself at home, he appears confident and at ease. ‘Bartenders are renowned for making up terrible, terrible bullshit when they make drinks,’ he says to boos from the bartender team. ‘But I’m going to be very truthful.’
He starts with a bottle of Junipero Gin – it’s got a fiddly seal. ‘You’ll have to sabrage it,’ suggests Swift’s Sam Ameye. And Pashby-Taylor duly has a go…
Building his cocktail in the shaker, he begins with the story behind the Aviation. ‘We’re going to add crème de violette, no one knows where it comes from, but I can tell you now the German’s invented it in World War Two.’ He says it with such conviction even the judges pause.
Pouring the lilac liquid into a coupette, he continues, ‘it’s called an Aviation because of the sky, because of course, the sky is purple. Donald Trump said it in a press briefing yesterday, it must be true.’
Topped off with a Maraschino cherry, his cocktail is complete. ‘It looks more like the grey sky over Glasgow than a blue sky over Brighton,’ jokes judge Tom Forrest. ‘He’s got good bantz,’ notes Fields, Morris & Verdin’s Jess Cheeseman.
With not even Pashby-Taylor’s inspired bullshit saving them, the sommeliers fall a little further behind.
Bartenders 68 Sommeliers 54
Round 3: Wine service
Luckily, the next round is wine service, and the sommelier team are pretty confident about reclaiming some of their lost points. While they anticipate their victory, bartender captain Will Hawes prepares to present. It’s a pretty simple round: our contestants have to approach the table of judges (set out like in a restaurant), present the wine, open it and pour, all according to the guidelines set out by the Court of Master Sommeliers.
With the music stopped and the room hushed, Hawes steps up to the table and politely introduces himself. The judges chat amongst themselves while deciding which wine would be perfect with their meal – they go for the Grüner. Getting the bottle, Hawes seems to have it down to a tee, presenting to Forrest first before opening the bottle at the table. He pours a taster for Forrest and makes his way around the table, starting with Bibendum’s Bethany Keating.
It’s looking good, but his eagle-eyed coach Christina Schneider has spotted a mistake. ‘You didn’t pour from the left,’
she says. While Ameye notices that he didn’t use a speed pourer.
Set to show the bartenders who’s boss, it’s the turn of Vinoteca’s Massimo Cappai, as he approaches the table with confidence. ‘Hello my name is Massimo and I’ll be looking after you today.’ They order the tricky wax-topped Beaujolais, but this doesn’t phase Cappai in the slightest, opening the bottle with ease. He pours Hiddleston a taster and waits for approval, before serving the rest of the party. He also pours a sneaky glass for himself.
The judges note his confidence and excellent wine knowledge, and are also impressed with his etiquette and technique. He scores 9s and 10s all round, and with that, the sommeliers are back in the game. ‘I need this after that,’ says Cappai swirling and sipping his wine.
Bartenders 90 Sommeliers 91
Round 4: Wine and food matching
After a lunch filled with team talks, note cramming, and a fair amount of leftover wine, attentions turn to the round the bartenders are fearing the most – wine and food pairing. Presented with a food and drink menu, the judges once again play restaurant ,pulling up a chair in the ‘BvS Brasserie’. The only good news is this time there's no actual service required.
Much to the judges’ disappointment, the menu of foie gras waffle, shiitake mushroom risotto and venison au poivre isn’t actually being prepared; the teams will just be scored on the creativity of their matches and being a good host.
‘How hot is the hot sauce for the foie gras?’ inquires Hiddleston, ‘I’m worried about too much spice with the wine.’ A seemingly calm Ameye recommends the Beaujolais – an interesting choice. ‘Why not the Riesling?’ queries Keating. ‘Surely its fruity flavour and lower abv won’t clash with the spice in the dish?’
Ameye umms and aahhs as he moves onto Forrest’s spicy goat curry. ‘I’m thinking a saké,’ he suggests confidently. ‘The floral notes will work well with it.’ The saké is also recommended for Cheeseman, who orders a matcha green tea cheesecake for dessert. When asked to explain the match Ameye sheepishly replies, ‘they’re both Japanese?’
‘It’s like that scene in The 40 Year Old Virgin,’ says Pashby-Taylor. ‘What can I have to drink? Well what do you want to drink?’
Quite rightly, after coping manfully with a tricky menu, applause for Ameye fills the room as Yauatcha City’s Kévin Dupont prepares to approach the table. Running his eyes quickly over the menu he nods to himself and begins to take orders. Keating orders the burger, a seemingly easy choice, but then reveals she doesn’t like red wine.
Dupont throws a curveball by offering Keating a saké, ‘it will really bring out the umami notes,’ he assures. Hiddleston wants the cheeseboard but with a different selection of cheeses. ‘I’m completely in your hands,’ he tells Dupont, who rustles up a new board with a perfect Pinot Noir pairing.
After Dupont’s seamless performance, the sommeliers take a strong lead, but this could all change with the final challenge of the day a real bartender favourite…
Bartenders 125 Sommeliers 136
Round 5: Mystery box...
As the day draws to a close there’s only one thing left on the agenda, and it’s the challenge both teams have been looking forward to – the mystery box round.
This song isn't about Piña Coladas, it's about having an affair!
Competitors are given a box containing a mix of ingredients they must use to create a cocktail. Each box contains a base spirit they must use, and they’ve got to use at least two other ingredients. Just to be kind, five minutes of team deliberation are also thrown into the mix, pre-cocktail creation.
Found’s George Krastev is up first, with a box of artichokes, whisky, sweet vermouth, hot sauce and smoked syrup. ‘Team assemble,’ he calls, as the bartenders gather around.
‘Fuck that,’ says Ameye, removing the hot sauce and smoked syrup from the equation. It’s clear they are in their element as Krastev devises a plan to make a twist on an Artichoke Manhattan.
Beginning to make his drink, Krastev explains to the judges the thinking behind his cocktail. ‘We’re looking to take the usual flavours of a Manhattan and make it more herbal, that is why we are washing the ice with artichoke oil.’
The judges seem very impressed as he brands his creation a ‘barbecue in your mouth.’ ‘I took one point off straight away for not liking the hot sauce,’ quips Forrest.
While the judges are having mixed reactions to the artichoke oil, the somm team is given its first mystery box.
Having decided, since the training day, that he is moving to Canada (possibly to avoid the monumental responsibility
of BvS victory) Oxo Tower’s Benedict Norton has been replaced by keen co-worker Giordano Ghiraldotti.
And this is his turn to shine, though his box is a tough one. ‘This is a stitch-up,’ cries Pashby-Taylor, unpacking a tin of pumpkin purée. ‘Have you ever been hit by a tin of pumpkin purée?’ He glares at his opponents, only half in jest.
Still, Ghiraldotti rolls up his sleeves and gets to work, whipping up a deliciously summery mix of gin, cream soda, King’s Ginger and orange bitters. ‘Lovely, simple and very refreshing,’ decides Keating. ‘I forgot to whack the lights and throw ice,’ he says ruefully.
‘Do we get more points if we throw ice?’ asks Pashby-Taylor.
The Curious Cat’s Lewis Parry is next, and he looks pleased with his box of rum, ginger ale, soy sauce, pineapple and chilli. The soundtrack switches to Rupert Holmes' Escape as the room starts cheering. ‘Has anyone ever listened to the lyrics of this song? It’s not about Piña Coladas, it’s about having an affair!’ states Parry. Managing to use all ingredients but the chilli, the judges are impressed by the balance of the drink.
Last, but certainly not least, sommelier team captain Pashby-Taylor takes over the bar once again. Still reeling from Pumpkin Purée-gate, he slowly unpacks his box of Maraschino liqueur, almond milk, vodka, eggs and Dip Dabs. ‘If they don’t nail this, they can’t nail anything,’ comments Krastev.
‘This drink is called The Stitch Up,’ says Pashby-Taylor as he begins building in the shaker. ‘So we’re going to make a flip, well at least I think that’s what we’re going for.’ He mixes Maraschino, almond milk and egg white before shaking and straining into a goblet. ‘It smells like cherry custard,’ he says before tasting. ‘Yes, it also tastes like cherry custard.’
In a panic, he adds bitters ‘for colour,’ only to find out said bitters are colourless…. ‘It’s sort of like banana milkshake,’ says Hiddleston. ‘I’m really not sure if I could drink two,’ notes Forrest.
And with that, after falling behind in the wine rounds, the bartenders creep back into top position, going into the Imbibe Live grand final with a mere four-point lead. It really is too close to tell who will win that coveted title on Centre Stage on 3 July. Particularly if there’s more pumpkin purée involved…
Bartenders 191 Sommeliers 187
Thanks to the guys at London Cocktail Club Oxford Circus for hosting the competition and for all their help on the day. Thanks also to Christina Schneider, Chris Dennis, Bethany Keating, Jess Cheeseman, Tom Forrest and Bobby Hiddleston for their time and expertise. Finally, thanks to Bibendum for supplying all of the wine and Berry Bros & Rudd for contributing all of the spirits.
While you're here…
Have you registered for the on-trade’s favourite drinks show yet? Imbibe Live is taking place on 3-4 July at Olympia London.
If you don't already know, Imbibe Live is the innovative and interactive annual exhibition for anyone who sources, buys or serves drinks in the licensed on-trade. From sommeliers to buyers and from managers to publicans and bartenders, this essential date in the drinks calendar will see the industry’s finest come together.
Register today: https://www.imbibe.com/live
We can’t wait to see you there!