The Rub Cup
Celebrating our Best & Brightest
by Joe Macbeth
In my two and a half years at Rub i've been very privileged to hire and work with some extraordinary bartenders. From the ready made whizzes who jumped in from day one and knew cocktails like the back of their hand to the rookies who joined us and rapidly progressed. I truly believe Rub has become a hub for both helping get established bartenders down on their luck back on their feet, and for training and developing the next generation of top quality bartenders.
So a few months ago I decided on a way to both celebrate and push those elite few amongst the team who wanted to go that bit further. We had already set up a voluntary advanced bartender scheme with a 10 week completely optional training course on a wide variety of subjects. It was especially amongst these lucky few that I saw something special. A desire to not just have work be a job but something to be proud of and something to excel in. So alongside my friends at Marblehead and Quintessential Brands we launched the first ever Rub Cup to find our company's Best Bartender.
Entries were open to any member of the bar team at any of our venues across the country. The final would take place at Rub Nottingham and challenge those brave few by putting them through a series of challenges that would test different areas of their bar skills. The final points would then be tallied up and a top three announced.
I had hoped for representatives from each of our venues. But unfortunately due to some unforeseen circumstances our Newcastle and Beverley representatives had to drop out. This led to a tightly contested final between our final five competitors. Dominic Pavier, Rachel Shephard, Ollie Bastiani, Alex Amor and Eilidh Macbeth.
Now my first hurdle with the competition was establishing impartiality. I've also been very close with my teams but in this case I had one of my groomsmen competing and my wife. Obvious red flags for fairness. So I brought on two additional judges, Christian Tirel from Last Chance Saloon and Geoff Speiran the UK Brand Ambassador for Dubliner Whiskey. I also decided on a pure point based system. So the combined scores from the three judges based on scoring criteria would determine the competitors final positions. There would be no discussion and no personal opinions involved.
The first challenge was a speed round. Each entrant would have to step onto the bar and prepare 5 different classic cocktails in as quick as time as possible whilst making sure that they both looked and tasted correct so that the judges would deem them 'buyable'. They needed to make a Dubliner Manhattan, a Dubliner Old Fashioned, an Opihr Bramble, a Don Papa Daiquiri and a Don Papa 'Cuba Libre'. None of them had ever done anything quite like it so there were some definite nerves on show. But everyone tried their hardest and there were actually a few standout drinks amongst the bunch. Each competitor started with 100pts and once they passed the 1min threshold then they started dropping points for every 15secs that passed. The winner of the speed round was Dom with Eilidh a little bit behind in second. Scores were added up and the competitors moved onto round 2. The blind smelling round.
A big part of bartending is being able to identify and understand the ingredients you are working with. Your taste and ability to smell are key to this skill. So for round 2 we set up a table with ten mystery tins labelled 1-10 with secret alcohol inside each one. The guys had 10 minutes to smell the tins and put down their answers for each one. If they got the ingredient correct they scored 5pts. If they got the brand as well they scored an additional 5pts. There were 100pts up for grabs again. There were some interesting answers amongst the group. I think there were a few panicked answers and you could definitely see a few heads being banged against walls afterwards. After all they were all in it to win it. But overall everyone did very well. Rachel narrowly took round 2 with the most correct answers and Eilidh came in a close second again.
The third round was a quiz. There were again 100pts up for grabs on questions from five key categories. Vodka, Gin, Rum, Whiskey and Tequila. The competitors were put through their knowledge paces, having to rely on their brand knowledge, understanding of alcohol production and history and general knowledge. There was plenty of 'wait!!!' and 'slow down!!!' being shouted out as I cracked on through their questions. It wasn't an easy test and the guys had to fall back on the knowledge they'd picked up over their time at Rub and especially for those who attended the Advanced Course from the variety of spirit lessons they undertook as part of that programme. Again scores were tallied up and Dom took round 3 with the highest score and Eilidh and Rachel were separated in 2nd and 3rd by a point.
Which all led to the most important round. The guys had been asked 4 weeks before the competition to prepare 3 unique cocktails built around our three sponsored brands - Opihr Gin, Dubliner Whiskey and Don Papa Rum. They would need to create 1 sweet drink, 1 sour drink and 1 savoury drink. They would also need to make and present these drinks to the judges whilst explaining their ideas, ingredients, how they related to the brands and any other knowledge they could squeeze in. There were points available for creativity, innovation, taste, aroma, technical skills, cocktail name, presentation and brand knowledge. Each cocktail was worth 100pts and so there were a mighty 300pts up for grabs in the final round.
First up was Dom, who had never done a cocktail competition before and had the unique disadvantage of being completely teetotal. Dom had to design his drinks completely from his understanding of flavours and get his friends to try them out in the build up to the competition. Dom created a sweet Apple & Cherry candied cocktail for his Don Papa serve, a Mango based Dubliner drink for his sour cocktail and finally his standout serve an Opihr based cocktail that used a homemade Rhubarb & Port cordial that he had made. I really enjoyed his cordial and the serve was nicely presented on a wooden board with a golden chocolate garnish and some treasures that related to the biblical port of Opihr.
Next up was Alex, again entering his first ever competition. Alex played to his strengths and delivered three serves that were classical in style and simple, but in a very good way. Utilising simple flavours that accented the base spirits. The judges all enjoyed his Old Fashioned/Manhattan-esque Dubliner whiskey twist.
Eilidh was up third. Whilst Alex and Dom should be very proud of their efforts in this round, there were disadvantaged by the fact that Eilidh, Rachel and Ollie had all entered cocktail competitions before and Eilidh had won the Monin Cup midlands regional. Eilidh has a great understanding of the building blocks of a great drinks concept. But her greatest skill is her natural charisma and ability to present. She created three interesting serves, two stellar standouts and one that with a few tweaks could have been on par. Her Dubliner Whiskey cocktail mixed Dubliner with rich sherry, chocolate and chestnut notes. She used a jam jar dropped into her coupe's "heart" and filled with a chestnut and Dubliner Honeycomb whiskey liqueur to impart some lovely rich honeycomb aroma without having any of the flavour effect her drink. This was my personal favourite. Her Don Papa serve cocktail combined tropical Mango & Coconut flavours with a lager-esque foam top made from San Miguel beer as a nod to the Philippines where the Rum originates. It was served up on some bamboo leaf. This was Christian's personal favourite. Her final savoury drink looked amazing, served in a beautiful crystal champagne flute. She had tied the red & gold ribbons found on an Opihr bottle round it's stem and served it up with flashes of the brand's signatory colours. It was a combination of Opihr, coriander & carrot juice that with some tweaking would have made a great savoury cocktail, but it wasn't quite there flavour-wise.
Rachel delivered the most innovation with one of her serves. Her Don Papa serve was a fun tiki drink with rich tart flavours. Her Opihr drink was solid and very easy to drink. But it was her Dubliner drink that stole the show. For the bravery in trying a challenging new technique and her ability to recover from near disaster. Rachel poured her nutty and sweet Dubliner cocktail inside a hollowed out frozen ice sphere that was skewered through with a metal rod. The rod balanced her cocktail over a martini glass filled with goslings 151 (75.5%) rum. She lit the rum on fire and as the rum burnt away it slowly melted the ice sphere and dripped the beverage into her drink. It was a fun bit of theatre that definitely caught everyone's attention. Unfortunately too much heat was applied and her glass shattered, partly based on the fact that three overly enthusiastic judges had egged her on with calls for more fire. But Rachel wasn't fazed, she whipped out another drink without all the fire so that we could still taste the final product. And it was Geoff's favourite drink of the day which is saying a lot considering it's his brand.
Up last but not least was Ollie. Ollie delivered some really exciting drinks that with a little bit of tweaking here and there could have smashed it out of the park. His Don Papa drink was an excellent take on Tiki cocktails with a fun 'Fo Man Shu' cocktail glass. His Dubliner whiskey cocktail attempted to infuse the flavours of Irish soda bread into an Old Fashioned style cocktail with a soda bread garnish. But his ballsiest effort was his floral Opihr cocktail. He had acquired a beautiful martini glass with a stem that bent and twisted all the way around to act as a straw. And he didn't shy away from embracing the flavours he wanted to play with adding big kicks of luxardo maraschino and lavender syrup to his drink. It was sadly a bit too much but the creative ambition was there and with a bit of tweaking the drink could have nailed it.
Overall I was so proud of all my guys for not only taking the time to prepare and compete in this intense competition but also for their excellent performances on the day. They can all be proud of themselves and i'm sure they'll all either continue to progress within the company or elsewhere.
But sadly we need a winner. So after some lengthy calculations the scores were added together and we had a decisive 1st, 2nd and 3rd who would be taking home some excellent goody bags from Marblehead with spirit bottles, bar kits and t-shirts. There were also some mini-prizes for 4th and 5th so everyone took something away with them for their time and effort.
3rd place was very tight with only a few points separating 3rd and 4th. Ultimately it came down to the difference in the original cocktail round and Ollie nipped ahead into 3rd place.
2nd place was very well deserved by a bartender who really understands her cocktails and has a good future in cocktail competitions. If she continues to progress with her speed and knowledge as well then she could be one of Nottingham's next top bartenders. In 2nd place it was Rachel.
Finally, the big moment, the first ever Rub Cup winner and taking home the title of 'Rub's Best Bartender' was Eilidh. She had come consistently high up in the three previous rounds but she absolutely smashed the original cocktail round scoring the highest marks from all three judges. It was well deserved and she has a bright future in the bar industry. Shortly after the competition she was offered a position as Bar Manager at another bar, showing just how talented and valued our amazing bartenders are in the trade.
I'm so proud of them all and of the many talented bartenders i've been able to work with at Rub over the past few years. We've had bartenders progress through our company and also had those who have left us go on to work at some great bars in the midlands and the north including Last Chance Saloon, The Wilderness, Kosmonaut and Boilermaker. They've made names for themselves, won cocktail competitions and been recognised nationally. They've all done good by Rub.
If you're an experienced bartender looking for a change or just someone starting out who wants to be somewhere where they'll be pushed to learn and develop then apply for a job at Rub today. There are always new opportunities on the horizon.
Also make sure to check out our new 80s themed cocktail menu which our bar team has been busy cracking out across the country over the past week at rubsmokehouse.com/pages/menu