A Word from the Bar: Cocktail Competitions, Moroccan Adventures and Celebrating Southern Comfort
By Joe Macbeth
I recently achieved a milestone in my bartending career and managed to win at the Opihr Gin World Championship to take home a global bartending title. I was asked to write a blog about my experience and it occurred to me that this win and some of our other posts about our bartender’s successes at competitions might seem a bit alien to the average reader. So I thought i’d try and give a little insight into what they are and how they work, as well as my thoughts about two competitions, one that’s just happened and one that’s coming up.
I know when I first started working behind bars I didn’t even know that cocktail competitions existed and definitely didn’t know how to go about winning one. There are dozens of competitions a year, almost every brand has one in some way or another. They differ from small local mini-competitions, qualifying heats for larger competitions, national finals and international finals. The biggest competitions usually award very appealing prizes such as trips abroad, cash prizes or ambassadorships for the brand.
They usually follow the same beats. Competitors will be asked to submit recipes for a unique serve for a particular brand. The serve might have to relate to a certain theme or style of drink depending on the competition. A handful of bartenders are selected to compete, somewhere between 6 and 16 on a normal day. They’ll have to take turns on the bar, making their drinks in front of a judging panel whilst talking about what’s going in their drink, why they’ve chosen those ingredients, what’s the story behind the drink and how it all relates to that brand. Afterwards judges will weigh up each competitor’s scores based on their presentations, the appearance of their drinks, the taste, aroma, creativity and a whole range of other criteria.
The appeal of competitions isn’t just the cool prizes. They’re an opportunity for bartenders to express their creativity in front of their peers, build their reputations and to experiment with new ideas. I’ve always also found them a great way to build confidence and public speaking skills. I was very uncomfortable with speaking in front of large groups a few years ago. I found cocktail competitions helped me tackle that and nowadays I thrive in those situations.
The Opihr Gin competition was one that was close to my heart. A few years ago I just couldn’t get into gin. It just wasn’t my cup of tea. Then I tried Opihr. A heavily spiced gin with lots of cardamom and coriander notes. It was something a bit different that allowed me to start seeing gin in a new light. I entered the Opihr cocktail competition last year and I managed to qualify for the world championship in Morocco and after four intense days in the North African heat, building friendships with bartenders from around the world and soaking up the smells, sounds and tastes of the souks, I created a Moroccan inspired Martini that celebrated those new found friendships I’d made along the way. The cocktail got me third place and it was a great end to an amazing trip. But it left a sense of unfulfillment in my stomach. I love the brand and I wanted to be their champion.
So I spent the last year really getting to know the gin. Creating dozens of cocktails with it. I went to the distillery in Warrington and met master distiller Joanne Moore and learnt directly from her, all her insights into her creation. And when the heats came up again, I managed to win in the north of England for the 2nd year in a row and return to Morocco. And the trip was filled with the same thrills as the first and I made a whole new bunch of friends. The one difference being, I was focused. I kept my eye out for every bit of inspiration. Soaked up every bit of knowledge. And had just that extra bit of luck as well.
I was sat by the pool and it hit me. I should make a cocktail that celebrated my own personal story. My travels from growing up in Hong Kong to England to Morocco. Blending Moroccan & Chinese flavours to create a richly, spiced cocktail. I named it after the english translation for Hong Kong which just so happened to hark back to Opihr as a name (named after King Solomon’s biblical port) and the story behind the brand (inspired by the aromas of a spice market).
55ml Opihr Gin
15ml Green Tea & Lemon Verbena infused Lillet Blanc
20ml Fresh Lemon Juice
20ml Spiced Orgeat (Ginger, Almond, Orange Blossom Water, Star Anise & Cinnamon)
Shaken and strained into a Moroccan Teapot. Served up with tea glasses decorated with locally plucked flowers and a tagine full of incense.
And luckily my mix of story, knowledge and drink managed to win me the title. And i’m so very happy and proud to be linked with the brand in that way. I’m now working towards my next competition and a potential trip to New Orleans. It’s the Southern Comfort Showdown, celebrating the spirit’s roots. I’ve always been fascinated by the American south. It’s one of the many reasons I chose to come work for Rub nearly 2 years ago. I’ve always wanted to travel to New Orleans, to experience Mardi Gras, to take in the sights and sounds of the Louisiana bayou. I’ve created a serve for the competition that plays off the sweet spices of Southern Comfort. I imagine taking it in on a bayou porch, waiting for sunrise and winding down after a heavy mardi gras night out on bourbon street.
The “Bayou Breakfast” mixes Southern Comfort with Bee Pollen infused Fino Sherry, which drys the drink out with soft honey and nutty notes, Fresh Mint for refreshing herbal flavours, Peach Jam for sweetness that compliments the fruity flavours in Southern Comfort and a subtly smokey blend of tea that lengthens the drink. It’s a big, boozey, flavourful southern-style iced tea. I’ll be making it at my first competition representing Rub Smokehouse on the Tyne and it’ll be available for opening week in Newcastle.
So if you’ve persevered with this blog until the end, then hopefully it’s given you a little insight into cocktail competitions and why we do them. I’m also hoping it’s made you realize how much hard work and creativity the team at Rub put into all their drinks. We have a great team of bartenders all at different points in their careers, but with the shared work ethic to improve themselves, be creative and to give you all fun drinks and plenty of atmosphere.