Rub on Tour: in Morocco with Opihr Gin
It was a rainy Monday morning in Manchester. I had scrambled together ingredients and glassware over the course of a busy weekend on the bar, grabbed an early morning train and found myself behind a mancunian bar about to whip up my Opihr cocktail 'Smugglers Sling' and rapidly trying to remember everything I knew about the brand and its history. Less than an hour later I was being booked on a flight to Morocco as the North & Midlands champion at the Opihr World Cocktail Championships.
I was a little bit nervous on the flight over. I've done my fair share of cocktail competitions, both locally and nationally, but never anything on an international scale. The thought of taking on some of the best bartenders from around Europe and America was rather daunting. But I was already a winner and the thought of representing Rub on the international scene excited me.
Now cocktail competitions are usually a little bit intense with everyone trying to perfect their cocktails, their banter, their knowledge of the brand and their individual stories for the judges. They're also nearly always slightly pretentious. But I love doing them anyway, not only because of the fantastic prizes, but also because it's a great learning experience for any bartender, no matter how experienced, seeing a whole array of interesting techniques and styles that other bartenders bring along.
But Morocco was different. It was clear almost immediately. The competition element quickly faded to the background as we all settled into our private hotel in Marrakech, kicked back next to the pool, chatted and drank. Drank a lot. It soon became a trip about 11 bartenders from around the world enjoying each other's company, making new friends, sharing experiences and drinking a lot of gin.
We explored the Moroccan nightlife and during the day we meandered around the marketplaces. Our trips to the markets were very important as our competition cocktails would entirely be made of ingredients and glassware we purchased from the souks with our set competition budgets.
The first challenge took place in a local woman's home. She taught us all how to cook tagines. Then we were given roughly 45 minutes to create recipes using whatever ingredients were left on the table, glassware we bought at the market earlier and a mystery bottle of spirit to use in conjunction with our Opihr gin. I was given Mozart Dark Chocolate liqueur and naturally went down the dessert angle. If there's one thing Rub has brought out of me its a masterful understanding of sweet treats. I created "bananaramadan" using Opihr, Mozart, fresh banana, salt, a syrup made using ginger & star anise, fresh lemon juice and a whole egg. I managed to take 3rd place which put me in a buoyant mood heading into the big competition day.
The final round would have us all showcase our bespoke Opihr creations using ingredients we had purchased from the souks and encompassing a theme of journey. We were drawn into two semi-finals. The champion of each semi-final would face off for the world championship.
I had mixed feelings about being drawn in what some of us dubbed "the group of death" comprising of the very talented Val from Barcelona, Mariena from Las Vegas, Steph from Dublin, Bryan from Minnesota and Francois from New York. Val, Steph and myself and taken the top 3 spots the previous day so it was a tough group to be drawn amongst. Part of me thought it might be easier to have been drawn in group two if I wanted a crack at the final but ultimately the thought of going up against the best was more enticing to me. If you're going to be champion you need to be number 1 regardless of who you have to face to get there.
My cocktail was built around my personal journey in Morocco. One of new experiences and building friendships. I usually stick to my guns at these competitions. Playing on my strengths of long drinks, speeches about history and facts and my own rigid style. So I decided that, in the spirit of the competition, I would do the opposite and make a short drink that was all about the emotions I felt on the trip. Each ingredient comprising of a feeling I felt along the way - the gin that got us there, my syrup representing the sweetness of new friendships, tangy grapefruit juice representing the sourness we all felt in the mornings with our sleep deprived hangovers and the vermouth representing the bitterness of having to say goodbye. It was garnished with a heartfelt postcard to the group and friendship bracelets from the market for everyone to keep. It was a bit sappy and sentimental, but it was completely un-me and felt great to get outside of my comfort zone.
"Postcard from a Friend"
60ml Opihr Gin
25ml flash infused cinnamon & star anise dry vermouth
12.5ml hibiscus, black pepper and saffron syrup
12.5ml fresh pink grapefruit juice
Shake and strain into Moroccan martini glass. Serve with a Moroccan spoonful of hibiscus flowers and star anise, a heartfelt postcard and friendship bracelets.
It went down to the wire in my semi-final. I lost by fractions of points, even managing to get a perfect score off one of the judges. Ultimately though I would place 2nd in my semi-final and 3rd overall. Mariena who beat me would go on to be world champion and a deserved one at that. She is a down to earth, kind and friendly person. She is so genuine for someone who has achieved so much in her high flying life back home in Vegas.
The whole trip was a fantastic experience. It was life changing not only in terms of the friendships I made but also the lessons I learned. I thank Opihr for the opportunity and Rub for supporting me. Hopefully I can bring a little bit of Morocco back to Rub with me and help make our cocktails that bit better. It's something I push myself to do every waking day.