Posts tagged #competitions

Circles and straight lines

With any kind of creative endeavour, there's always a temptation to say you've created something for the simple pleasure of having created it - art for art's sake, if you will - but while that's true to some extent, it would be ever so slightly misleading of me to suggest that all the drinks I come up with are in celebration of some Dionysian muse. Most of the time, they're in celebration of the possible acquisition of stuff.

Cocktail competitions have been something of a compelling force in the industry over the past few years - the emergence of huge, global contests with prizes of the genuinely life-changing variety (recent highlights include brand ambassador roles, start-up capital for opening your own bar, getting to design and sell your spirit) to accompany the more traditional bonuses of travel, equipment and free booze has led to a near-constant cycle of fierce competition. With so many people producing so many new recipes, standards have inevitably improved - gone are the days when the winner was the person with the most exotic fruit.

There's now further pressure when it comes to formulating a recipe: not only must it taste good and look good, now every drink needs that thing that makes it stand out from the crowd. It might be a home-made ingredient or a new technique or a crazy new garnish. For me, it's usually trying to draw dodgy thematic connections between things.

Here's an example: for the Ron Diplomático World Tournament, I wanted to pair up a rich, aged rum from Venezuela with the floral notes of Chartreuse. The rum in question - Diplomático Reserva - is aged for up to eight years and brings a chunk of rich fruit (I get a lot of plum and banana) along with some darker spice notes (espresso, vanilla and dark chocolate in particular) and it doesn't naturally match the complex herbal qualities of Chartreuse. If you were to make a Venn diagram of the two, it might look like two separate circles on a page.

The trick was to use something as a bridging flavour and I opted for Grand Marnier; the cognac base would play well with the rum and the sweet citrus fills in the gap to lighter aspects of the Chartreuse. The other reason Grand Marnier works well is as a thematic link between the other two ingredients.

On one hand, you have Diplomático Reserva. Produced at Distilerias Unidas (DUSA), it's a blend of column- and pot-still rum and makes use of a couple of specific quirks of Venezuelan rum production: due to the low, government-set price of sugar, the molasses they use for the column-still rums are relatively high in sugar content, and the local climate tends to mean that evaporation during barrel ageing doesn't significantly impact the ABV of the spirit. While DUSA has been in operation since 1959, many of the techniques used were brought to the Haçienda Botucal by Don Juancho Nieto Melendez in the late 19th century. It's a great representation of rum as the spirit of the new world - initially produced as a solution to the surplus of molasses from sugar production and refined over time into something remarkable and elegant.

On the other hand, Chartreuse has been made Carthusian monks since the 1740s from more than 132 herbal extracts and can be seen as an archetype of the European tradition of liqueur-making that began with its roots in alchemy and medicine and would ultimately lead to things like genever and, later, gin.

And then in the middle comes Grand Marnier; conceived in the 1880s by Alexander Marnier-Lapostolle and combining the new world (in the form of the bitter peels from the Caribbean that provide the orange flavour) and the old (in its base spirit of aged Cognac). It provides a link in more than just flavour - it's on the line from the old world to the new world in both geography and time.

All things considered, it's a neat little conceit. The drink itself - the King of the Hill - is available over the bar at work and has been well received by people who really don't have much of an interest in the historical and thematic relationships between the ingredients in it so I guess I'll see if it'll make the difference if I make the Australian final in Melbourne in April.

King of the Hill

35ml Diplomático Reserva
10ml Green Chartreuse
10ml Grand Marnier
10ml lemon juice

Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of orange zest.

Posted on March 16, 2013 and filed under Mixology, Recipes.


I never realised cocktail competitions could go to overtime. I've been involved with a couple of tiebreakers over the years but quadruple overtime was a new one.

I was almost glad I wasn't involved. Our host, 42 Below brand ambassador Metinee Kongsrivilai, had revealed that two out of three places on the team to represent Scotland at the UK qualifier for the 2012 42 Below Cocktail World Cup had already been claimed by Jamie MacDonald, last year's UK representative in the Global World Class final, and Danil Nevsky, recently a world finalist in the Bols Around the World competition and the third spot came down to a choice between Jody Buchan from 99 Bar & Kitchen in Aberdeen  and Megs DeMeulenaere from Edinburgh's Bramble. The final member of Team Scotland would be decided by a pour test: whoever nailed free-poured measures of both 25ml and 50ml would make the cut. That turns out to be difficult to do if both bartenders never free pour ingredients and so, having matched each other for three rounds, Megs grabbed victory on a single 50ml measure.

42 Below Honey

The Cocktail World Cup has a reputation for being one of the more intense of the major global competitions so I guess it's somewhat appropriate that the first UK regional ended in sudden death.

I might not have been involved in the overtime shenanigans but I was happy with the drink I entered. Given that the winning recipes included a drink that changed colour, a slushy served beside its own beach of flavoured sand and a blue curaçao sea and a Piña Colada flavoured with the barrel essence rotovaped from an aged rum, I can see that maybe the following offer was lacking in a little of the madcap x-factor required.

Clockwork Heart

45ml 42 Below Honey
15ml Creme de Peche
10ml green tea syrup
20ml lemon juice

Shake all ingredients with ice and fine-strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of orange zest.

Green tea syrup

400g caster sugar
200ml hot water
15g loose leaf green tea

Add the sugar to water in a large heatproof measuring jug. Add the tea and let it soak for 30mins. Strain the tea from the mixture and bottle; it should keep for up to 14 days.

Posted on July 6, 2012 and filed under Mixology, Recipes.

The Matinee

I've previously written about my participation in Bacardi's annual Legacy Cocktail Competition; despite qualifying for the regional finals twice, I never really managed any great success in it. Luckily for anyone who's interested in how things go beyond the initial stages, Metinee Kongsrivilai, head bartender at the Bon Vivant up here in Edinburgh, not only qualified for the UK final but made it into the final round as one of "three most promising" competitors. The other finalists are Quo Vadis' Zdenek Kastanek and Jody Monteith from bar consultancy the Liquorists.

The Matinee

50ml Bacardi Superior
2-4 kaffir lime leaves
12.5ml Martini Rosso
12.5ml lemon juice
12.5ml vanilla sugar syrup
12.5ml egg white

Shake all ingredients with ice and fine-strain into a chilled stemmed glass. Garnish with a kaffir lime leaf.

One of the difficult parts of a competition entry is the name and it's always interesting to hear how they come about. Metinee says that "the Matinee itself is based - not on my name, even though it start out as a joke, but on the basis that I wanted the drink to a form of entertainment you can enjoy, day or night. I also felt that it's a nice, short and memorable name and it suits the drink well."

A lot of the recipes I put together are for events or promotions and are designed to fulfil a particular brief. Once the event or promotion - or competition - is over, I don't tend to dwell on them. The difference between the Legacy competition and other competitions is that if you make that final round, you're going to be spending a year promoting that one drink. As Metinee puts it, "I don't even need to go Puerto Rico, I just want this drink to have a future."

Starry Night

Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh (June 1889)

There are lot of cocktail competitions throughout the year and sometimes when you submit an entry, you don't really think about it too much after you hit the "submit" button. For me, that was the case with the Bols Genever Classic Competition - I sent in a drink called the Stuyvesant and didn't hear anything back for a while and so it slipped off my list of immediate concerns.

That changed a couple of months ago, when representatives from Bols Genever and Maxxium UK got in touch with the general manager at Sygn looking for a venue for a Scottish final for the competition. After a couple of meetings, they agreed a date in early November and selected six finalists - Grant Neave from Monteiths, Tom Walker from Bramble, Ryan McDonald from the Voodoo Rooms, Jo Karp and Byron Abbot from Bond No. 9, and me. The final was covered by two intrepid correspondents from Imbibe magazine and is due to be featured in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue.

After we'd all presented our original online entries, word came down that the judges had picked two competitors to face-off for the prize - a trip to Amsterdam with the winner of the English final and Bols brand ambassador John Clay. The two finalists were Tom and myself and we were given fifteen minutes to come up with a contemporary style cocktail using Bols Genever.

I was keen to keep the genever at the forefront but I also wanted to complement it with ingredients that don't require too much buy-in from a customer. One of the things I'd talked about with John Clay earlier in the day was the difficulty in getting the idea of genever across to a customer in, say, two sentences. It's a really interesting category, but it takes some explaining and that can be tough to do in a busy bar environment.

I opted to make a long drink and I opted to make a sour-type drink; for all their qualities, aromatic-type drinks lack the same degree of accessibility, particularly for people are massively into cocktail culture. As I put the ingredients together, I realised that I was making a pale drink with a ginger top so I named it after a painting by another famous son of the Netherlands, Vincent Van Gogh.

Starry Night

35ml Bols Genever
15ml apricot brandy (I used the Bitter Truth)
25ml lemon juice
25ml apple juice
2 bsp acacia honey
Top with ginger ale

Shake the first five ingredients with ice and strain into an ice-filled highball glass. Top with ginger ale and garnish with an apple fan.

Tom went down a different route, taking his inspiration from the New York scene and the work of Sam Ross in particular. It was an impressive drink and hopefully he'll get something up on his blog about it. Ultimately, I think that my focus on making something consciously accessible to people unfamiliar with the category helped; I won, by something like one point between three judges.

It's alway nice to do well in comps, and it's extra special to be able to do it on home turf. Thanks to John and everyone at Bols Genever and Maxxium UK, and to the guys from Imbibe for taking the time to check out the Edinburgh scene.

Posted on November 27, 2011 and filed under Mixology, Recipes.

Road Trip: Balmenach Distillery and Caorunn

Scotland - and it's likely that I'm not the first person to notice - has a long history of distilling. The obvious product of that history is whisky - single malt or blended - but like any country with that kind of tradition, it's not uncommon for producers to branch out into other spirits. Up and down the length of the country, you'll find vodkas, gins, liqueurs, and much more besides, all produced on scales from a single shop to multi-national distribution runs.

All of this became particularly relevant as I accompanied Andrew Kearns from Monteiths, the winner of the Edinburgh heat of Caorunn Gin's cocktail competition, to the Balmenach distillery in Speyside. We travelled up with the Glasgow party, including regional winner David Smillie from the Blythswood Square Hotel and Caorunn's brand ambassador Ervin Trykowski, and met up with 99 Bar & Kitchen's Mike McGinty and the Aberdeen contingent at the distillery.

The word Speyside should be familiar to anyone with an appreciation of single malt Scotch. Of Scotland's whisky producing regions (the others being Highland, Lowland, Islay, Islands, and Campbeltown), it's home to the greatest number of working distilleries - including those of the world's top selling single malts, the Glenlivet and Glenfiddich.

The Balmenach distillery isn't a new addition to the scene; it was established by James McGregor at some point in the early 19th Century (it's often dated to 1824, when it was officially licensed but it's a fair guess that they'd been producing before then). It remained in family ownership through 1922 before changing hands a number of times through the 20th Century, until it's then-owner, Diageo, opted to mothball the site in 1993. Balmenach was taken over by Inver House in 1997 and production started anew in 1998.

Scotch whisky is, as many spirits are these days, subject to a whole raft of legislation governing what may and may not be used in its production, the method of production, length of maturation, and so on. As far as ageing goes, in order to qualify as a Scotch whisky, it must be barrel aged in Scotland for a minimum of three years and one day. If you wanted to bring a single malt to market, you'd be up against a lot of 10 and 12 year old expressions, so you're looking at a decade before you can bottle something and that's before you consider that the age statement on a bottle of Scotch refers to the youngest whisky in the blend (even for single malt). If you want to compete, then it could be upwards of fifteen years before you have the stock on hand to blend a whisky that you could label as a 10 year old.

Ageing whisky is not a cheap process, and so it makes a lot of sense to use the equipment you've got to make something that you can bring to market a lot sooner than, say, fifteen to twenty years and that means white spirits. In the case of Caorunn, the equipment goes some distance to shaping the product; they found two berry chamber stills -they would have typically been used in the production of perfumes.

Essentially, high-strength spirit is pumped into a vaporiser and turned into vapour. That vapour is channeled into the base of the berry chamber and passes upwards through five perforated drawers which contain a loose mixture of the eleven botanicals. Simon Buley, Caorunn's creator, says that the process differs from that used by other gin producers in that all of the vapour comes into contact with all of the botanicals; there's no other way out of the chamber.

The final product sits somewhere between a traditional style gin and newer, more exotically flavoured efforts. There are six traditional botanicals - juniper, lemon peel, orange peel, coriander seed, angelica, and quassia bark - and five Celtic ones - rowan berry (Caorunn is the Gaelic word for rowan), heather, bog myrtle (also famed as a midge repellent), dandelion, and Coul Blush apple (a local variant bred to survive in the changeable climate of Northern Scotland). It's an interesting product to work with, and we headed back to Grantown-on-Spey to see that demonstrated by the three regional finalists later in the evening. The winner was Mike McGinty from 99 Bar & Kitchen in Aberdeen, with drinks called the Haughs of Cromdale and the Celtic Fizz.

The Haughs of Cromdale

37.5ml Caorunn Gin 12.5ml Costacalda Passito Bianco (sweet dessert wine) 10ml Calvados 20ml lemon juice 15ml homemade apple gomme muddled pink lady apples smoked heather bud in boston shaker

Using a lighter, set a sprig of heather on fire. Hold the tin from a Boston shaker over the sprig to capture the smoke. Muddle the apple in the other part of the shaker and add the other ingredients along with cubed ice. Cap with the smoke-filled shaker and shake. Fine-strain into a chilled red wine glass.

Garnish with a slice of apple and a sprig of heather.

Celtic Fizz

50ml Caorunn 20ml lemon juice 20ml pressed apple juice 15ml homemade spiced apple gimme 1 dash egg white topped with Brewdog Punk IPA

Shake the first five ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled highball glass (straight up). Top with IPA.

Garnish with a single star anise.

Thanks to everyone at Caorunn and 3rdparty for making the trip happen!

Posted on September 26, 2011 and filed under Mixology, Photos.