From there to here, then.
There was a local league of comps in Edinburgh when I first started working bars here almost five years ago - every couple of weeks we'd descend upon a given bar where a brand rep would give a short presentation before we dived into what was basically a mystery bag. Competing bartenders would pick a card with a list of five ingredients on it. We then had five minutes to come up with a recipe using at least two of those ingredients and we'd present that drink to the room and the (usually) three judges.
It was - over that first summer, for sure - a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. In general, it was fast and dirty, and it really drove home the feeling that blind panic is an important part of the creative process. While there was no way every drink was going to be home-run, every so often someone would aim for the fences and make it.
These days, competing is a big part of being a bartender. There are a lot of competitions at both local and national level and if it could be said that there was a competition season, that time's long gone.
The Finlandia Vodka Cup - which kicked off with a regional qualifier at Treacle on Tuesday - has to be seen as one of the big ones. This year marks its thirteenth edition and the World Final in Finland next year will draw competitors from all over the world. Last year marked the first time I'd qualified for a national final of any competition, so it's always going to stick in my mind. But that's not the only reason why the Vodka Cup is a big deal.
The amount of regulation can vary from comp to comp. The 42 Below Cocktail World Cup has almost no rules: you just need to get some 42 Below in there. Some comps will limit you to "commercially available" products, or outlaw "home-made ingredients". Some might impose a limit on the amount of alcohol. The Finlandia comp is tough because you're limited to five ingredients (excluding garnish), and to 50ml of alcohol at 40% ABV (or 2 units of alcohol, same thing). On top of that, you've only got three minutes to make two serves of your drink while explaining the thinking behind it.
Outside of those rules you're pretty much free to do whatever you like, and Tuesday's regional was another testament to the ingenuity of Edinburgh's bartenders (it'd be rude not to mention the two guys who trekked over from Belfast to compete, too). I didn't make the cut this year - I don't think I managed my time on the bar that well and left a lot of gaps in my presentation, even though I executed the actual drinks to spec - but massive congratulations to my colleague Andy Kearns who was representing the WestRoom who took first place. Hamiltons' Ben McFarlane and Chris Strong from Love & Death Inc. in Belfast nabbed the runners-up spots. Congratulations, and good luck, gentlemen.
Maiden in the Tower
35ml Finlandia Grapefruit Fusion
15ml Torres Mas Rabell white wine
10ml Bénédictine DOM
10ml lemon juice
2 dashes Peychaud's Bitters
Shake all ingredients with ice and fine-strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon zest twist and a cherry.