A few thoughts, trends and observations from our notebook while on assignment (on a yacht in the Mediterranean) for Diageo’s World Class global finals.
1. Storytelling Is The New Japanese Hard Shake
Why did Tim Philips win World Class 2012? More than just the cocktails he served, for us, the most memorable aspect of his performance last year was the laid-back, well-rehearsed stories that accompanied each drink.
It is notable, then, how many of the 2013 competitors picked up on Tim’s narrative style (compared to two years earlier, when everyone was pseudo-Japanese hard-shaking). We counted five separate competitors (and heard tell of more) who even directly borrowed Tim’s almost-famous ‘Cocktail Chicken Story’ from his 2012 finale.
So does this mean that storytelling is the latest competition-winning technique? Perhaps. Our only real issue is this: a comedian in a room full of librarians will naturally stand out; but one more joker in a room full of the buggers will be lost in the ocean of bad jokes.
2. This Year Is All Smoke, Low ABV & Savouries
Compared to the previous three years at least, the gamut of bartending techniques and skillsets was as high as ever. Higher even. But of notable prevalence to our eyes were: smoke guns (more than you can shake a, presumably burning, stick at); wine-based or reduced-alcohol cocktails (perhaps because of the Mediterranean heat?); and olive oil and savoury herbs used as ingredients. Good to know.
3. Competitions are Serious Business
A decade ago, cocktail competitions were part talk-the-talk, part make-a-drink and part industry-catch-up. They were mostly-serious things where bartenders showed off their abilities to the best possible level – but always with that industry-prevalent sense of que sera sera. This year, however, World Class was different with a tangibly intense aura of competitiveness and strategy and focus.
Perhaps its a result of branded competitions such as World Class continuing to grow in value and scale and multitude. Or perhaps it’s part of a response to the endless televised competitions hyping everything from singers to bakers to shed-builders. (The omnipresent TV crew this year probably didn’t help relax anyone.)
Or perhaps this is all down to Tim Philips’ bartender briefing on the first day of the finals:
Two years ago at the finals in Delhi, Tim said, he was the first to hit the bars at the end of each day and the last to leave. In the end, he finished the competition as a runner-up. So at last year’s finals in Rio, Tim changed tactic. This time, he was the first to call it a night after each day’s challenges; he was there to win, not to come second. And win he did.
Cocktail competitions are serious business. But from some of the feedback we heard, off the record, not all bartenders are entirely happy about this shift.
4. Are the Antipodes the New UK/NYC?
There were two key geographical take-outs from this year’s World Class Finals. Firstly, that the rest of the globe (notably Asia and South America) are catching up rapidly with the likes of Europe, USA and Japan. This is down in no uncertain part to programmes and competitions like World Class and its industrious ilk. So chappeaux for that.
The other observation is that there’s clearly something in the water down in Australia (and to a degree New Zealand). The way their champions (Matt Bax, Tim Philips, et al) and their bars keep cropping up on the industry grapevine is distinctly reminiscent of New York, London and Tokyo in their heydays.
So then, a prophesy of sorts: assuming its trajectory can overcome the difficulties of distance, NYC and London may soon have a new heir to their cocktail throne.
5. Applauding a Cocktail Shake Is Ridiculous
So can everyone please stop doing it? I totally appreciate why we lapped up flairing back in the ’90s. Similarly, the first time I beheld a blurred knife whittle an ice sphere. So too the unicorn-esque Japanese hard shake in the mid-Noughties. But today? Applauding a cocktail shake? Really?
Let’s put it in perspective: do you audibly cheer a chef for deftly dicing a carrot? Conversely, when was the last time you applauded a bartender for stirring, jiggering or having excellent conversation skills? There is inherent value to technique. Absolutely. But a craftsman should be celebrated for the work he produces more than any singular step he takes to create it. Surely. So if you’re going to applaud anything, do it at the moment you first taste that next mind-blowing beverage. Not before. (Though most bar folk would probably prefer that you just left a cash tip…)
And while we’re on the subject: bartenders, please don’t grin like idiots when you shake your drink (not even to a room full of applause). You look completely ridiculous. Not unlike a smarmy politician on a bullshit baby-kissing mission. And about as trust-worthy too.
6. The Saline Drip Is Your Friend
Censored! (But ask us next time you see us at the bar – strictly off the record, naturally. This one’s a corker.)
Next time: London Cocktail Week 2013.