London - and this really shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone - is a big place. It's at least ten times the size of Edinburgh in terms of population so each visit I make to the British capital becomes a test of my pathfinding ability. There always comes a point when I discover a flaw in my intricate planning: this time, it came within five minutes of arriving at Liverpool Street Station. It turns out that no matter how much you mght want it to, the Central Line just doesn't go through Moorgate. That said, I hadn't traveled six hundred odd miles south just to get slightly lost on the Tube. In fact, the purpose of this particular adventure - courtesy of Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands - was to compete in the final qualifying round for the Finlandia Vodka Cup against bartenders from all over Britain. The Vodka Cup is entering its twelfth year and the organizers are expecting competitors from 31 countries to attend the finals in February next year.
There was, however, only one place in Finland up for grabs between 16 UK finalists. We met up in Aquum in Clapham - it's very shiny - to do battle across two rounds. Each competitor presented an aperitif and a long drink. Disappointingly, I didn't get the chance to try any of the other competitors' drinks - both serves of each drink went to the judges who were based in a separate area of the bar - but from what I saw, everyone had brought their A-game.
The competition rules limited us to using no more than five ingredients in each drink excluding ice and garnish. While workshopping recipes, I decided pretty early on pair the two drinks. They're both based around a combination of a Finlandia flavour and Martini Bianco with a sweetening agent, citrus and some kind of bitters. Even within those (self-imposed) constraints, I was confident that the drinks were substantially different while remaining complementary.
I found myself in the evening's first pairing. The drinks were judged blind, but we had all submitted our recipes in advance along with a questionnaire that gave our MC - Michael from the Soulshakers - enough material to keep the crowd amused. The first round drinks were all aperitifs, though the judges later said that they felt that a lot of the recipes didn't quite fit their definition of an aperitif. I didn't get specific feedback as to which camp my effort fell into.
70 Days of Summer
40ml Finlandia Grapefruit Fusion
30ml Martini Bianco
20ml lemon juice
10ml pomegranate syrup
15ml Fernet Branca
Shake all ingredients with ice and fine-strain into a chilled martini glass. Express a twist of grapefruit zest over the top and discard. Garnish with a handful of pomegranate seeds served in a circular grapefruit zest on the side.
By all accounts, the long drink round was incredibly successful. Some careful questioning of the judges after the winner was announced led me to believe that my entry was in the top four or five recipes which - if true - I'd call a decent effort for my first national final.
50ml Finlandia Cranberry Fusion
2 dashes Fee Bros. Aztec Chocolate Bitters
30ml red grapefruit juice
1 bsp acacia honey
15ml Martini Bianco
Pour the Martini into an ice-filled highball. Shake the other ingredients and strain into the ice-filled glass over the Martini. Garnish with a garland of cranberries and a grapefruit zest wreath.
I may have only out of Edinburgh for a total of 30 hours, but the whole experience was off the map for me and I enjoyed every minute. Unfortunately, I didn't win - Milk & Honey's Jon Cowley will be flying the flag in February - but I've got no complaints. Thanks to everyone at Finlandia and BBF, the Soulshakers and Aquum for a great night and a great adventure.