Channeling opulence, exclusivity and luxury, super-premium Russian vodka Beluga is never one to settle for average. With a rich history, revered liquid and refined reputation, it's only right that its annual bartender competition Beluga Signature, stands out from the crowd.
Now in its third year, Beluga Signature has returned with a difference, forgoing the usual isolated entries and preliminary rounds. Instead, it's running an educational pop-up roadshow, taking top bartending talents around the world to conduct seminars for the crème de la crème of invited bartenders.
The London leg of the Beluga Signature Bartender School took place at the lavish Bulgari Hotel in Knightsbridge. UK brand ambassador Andrea Brulatti welcomed 17 bartenders from around the country, settling them in for a day of swotting up, led by American Bar at the Savoy's legendary Erik Lorincz, educational director of Beluga Signature Bartender School Philip Duff and Beluga Signature 2017 global champion Witek Wojaczek.
'The structure this year is totally different,' revealed Wojaczek, kicking off the day. 'Bartenders entered the competition, revealing their values and ambitions, and if those values mirrored Beluga's they were invited to participate.'
With coffee, pastries and pleasantries out of the way, it was down to business, with educational director Duff sharing his wisdom first. 'Normally competitions just take from you – you make drinks, you travel around the country, it's all take,' he began. 'Beluga gives something back, it's about education.'
His seminar explored the importance of resting – in spirits in bottles and in the bar setting – and the importance of individuality, which comes with bottle ageing, especially bottle-aged cocktails. The history of the legendary Mariinsk Distillery, home of Beluga, was also discussed, looking at its contribution to modern-day drinking. The first seminar ended with the group of bartenders tasting a flight of four Beluga vodkas, each with individual character and ageing methods. The exclusive tasting allowed bartenders to taste a non-rested Beluga vodka, along with Noble, Transatlantic, Allure and Gold Line.
After sips of Beluga's decadent range, the room was ready for seminar two, led by Duff, Wojaczek and Lorincz. What is luxury? They asked. How can it be defined?
'I'm here to share my experience of luxury and working in a five star hotel, inspiring the group to create luxury serves and luxury ways of bringing those serves to life,' said Lorincz, before regaling the room with tales of luxury and opulence at the American Bar, and what it meant to customers.
Duff and Wojaczek said that bartenders can bring luxury, no matter how small, to their customers – 'A pleasure obtained rarely, not a necessity,' said Duff. Experimenting, 'personability', one-on-one interaction, along with tangible experiences such as decor, ambiance and menu all create a luxurious experience.
Alongside crisp serves of Beluga and tonic, it was time for the penultimate seminar of the day, taken by global champion Wojaczek. Titled modernist flavour techniques, he looked to inspire prospective competitors, discussing flavours, aroma, balance, blending, infusing and the art of being meticulous when it comes to creating a cocktail. Crossing the world between kitchen and bar, Wojaczek revealed his own creative techniques including mixing multiple products to create new, totally unique ingredients. Wojaczek himself blended a selection of sherries to create one ingredient in the Beluga Signature 2017 global final.
With the day drawing to a close, the final seminar, called 'the bottom line', explored how realistic luxury is when considering GP. ' We need to create luxury service that makes financial sense,' said Duff. 'It's all about a variety of price points to bring a variety of people to your bar.' Talking of GP as a balancing act, Duff explored luxury versus affordable luxury and menu hacks, making sure your best-selling serve is one with a high GP.
'I always see a competition as challenging yourself,' said Lorincz on the Beluga programme. 'You take away new inspiration, meet new people who share the same interests as you, and you can learn from them and build relationships.
'This competition really brings the educational part to the forefront, these bartenders are being given quality information about brand topics that can inspire them in their everyday jobs and help them create a cocktail,' he continued. 'It's a great, stand-out competition format that really helps bartenders to be creative and active at the same time.
'I'm hoping to see people breaking boundaries, being creative and bringing to the table something we've never seen before.'
So, what next? Each bartender who attended a Beluga Bartender School is tasked with creating a Beluga Connoisseur’s Choice cocktail, using any Beluga vodka and four other ingredients. Then, they will be tasked with creating a unique bottled cocktail designed for ageing, challenging usual cocktail competition stereotypes.
After the national finals held around the world, the global final will be held in the glamorous beach resort of Sochi, Russia, later this year.
If there's anything Beluga Signature 2018 shows, it is that luxury, outstanding cocktails and concepts are created, not made.