For the last ten years, the United States Bartenders Guild held its Most Imaginative Bartender Competition in Las Vegas. Presented by Bombay Sapphire, the event is one of the longest running cocktail competitions. “The program was created 10 years ago with one focus: showcase the artistic talents of bartenders on the same platform as chefs have been recognized for decades,” says Gary Hayward, Bombay Sapphire North American Brand Ambassador and one of the judges. “It’s truly about supporting the industry and giving bartenders an opportunity to showcase their talents.”
What began ten years ago across only eight markets with 160 bartenders has evolved every year in scale and challenge. “We are now in a position to have bartenders across nearly every state and province in North America (legal permitting) enter the competition,” Hayward says about this evolution. This year, the competition visited thirty-three US cities and four Canadian cities in an effort to find the most creative bartenders in North America. Since the event has grown in scale and talent in the ten years since its inception, it made sense that the finals would be moved to the home of Bombay Sapphire in London, England from August 23rd-25th 2016.
It wasn’t all competition for the finalists. After being flown to England, the group traveled to Laverstoke to tour the recently opened distillery at Laverstoke Mill, the new home of Bombay Sapphire’s distilling operation. They were also treated to dinner and relaxed with cocktails created specifically for the event. It was the calm before the storm, so to speak.
For their final cocktails, many bartenders used both interesting ingredients and innovative techniques. Trip Sandifer from The Painted Pin in Atlanta, wearing a costume reminiscent of Ziggy Stardust (face paint included), wowed the judges with a virtual reality presentation paired with a cocktail served in a bag as if they were in outer space.
“My final drink began with a design question, which is really how you begin every cocktail. How does this cocktail fit with this bar?” says Sandifer.
And that question leads to all the other questions. Like, if a cocktail is just a drink, then all you have to do is put a drink in a space bag. “But a cocktail isn’t just a drink and when you put it in a bag, you lose a lot of what makes that drink special. So you have to add back in the visual elements and the aromatic elements that you’ve taken away.” On the outside of the bag, right under your nose, he placed a scratch-n-sniff sticker with the aromatic elements of the drink.
But, that wasn’t enough to take the title. After much deliberation, the judges named Schuyler Hunton, from Tiger Mama in Boston, the winner with his cocktail “Breakfast in Bombay.” The drink consisted of Bombay Sapphire Gin, compound grapefruit Earl Grey leo, lemon juice and egg white.
While they were there, I had a chance to chat with some of the bartenders about some of the trends they are currently seeing in the cocktail world.
“Trends come and go,” says Rowland, bartender at Bol in Vail, Colorado. “The cocktail world in the US has grown so much that a lot of things that were trends in the past few years are here to stay- using vinegar, bottling cocktails, barrel-aging, draft cocktails, beer cocktails.”
“The trend that I specifically am amped about implementing and practicing is the art of horticulture within the restaurant and bar industry,” says Gabino, Beverage Director at Parts & Labour in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “It has been extremely gratifying growing your own seasonal ingredients for the bar, not to mention it has instilled and propelled creativity with my bar team.” She enjoys having her guests create a “dealer’s choice.” “(It) has been a fun and fulfilling way of instigating a conversation with our bar patrons.”
The biggest trend Smith sees is old fashioned hospitality. “Getting a properly made drink isn’t limited by geography anymore,” says Smith, bartender at Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “Even home bartenders can make better Manhattans than most of the best bars thirty years ago.” He believes that what’s going to keep people interested in cocktail culture is the service and hospitality from the people working behind the bar.
“Classic cocktails are coming back with a vengeance,” says Terry, bartender at Fodder and Shine In Tampa, Florida. It’s not as if they every actually went out of style though.
“I think people are searching for a more simplistic experience sometimes at the bar.” It can all be a bit overwhelming with all of these new techniques, gadgets, and liquors coming out. “With so much variety, the modern bartender has a dilemma: How do I choose?”