“The helicopter skimmed the mountain’s ridgeline before lurching onto one side and dropping nose first into space, letting gravity pull us down the cliff face…”
I find it amazing to be able to write that sentence in the first person.
And not just in a ‘wow what a great industry we work in’ way, but also in a ‘that was one of the best days of my life’ way.
I’ve often wondered why it is that those lucky enough to make the 42Below Cocktail World Cup (CWC) final in New Zealand come back every year using words like ‘epic’ and ‘life changing’ to describe the experience.
Now finding myself among that group I know why: It is because the 42Below Cocktail World Cup is the embodiment of everything that is great about bartending and bartenders
While there are several huge, global cocktail competitions out there offering a great experience for bartenders, and in some cases a pretty significant career boost, they sometimes seem to be focused solely on the art of making drinks and wearing waistcoats.
This is undoubtedly an important part of a top bartender’s arsenal.
But so is good chat and a genuine love of people and good times. I wouldn’t want to spend five minutes across the bar from someone who didn’t have these qualities, no matter how good their drinks were.
And so, while those other comps look after the more serious side of the bartender’s personality, the CWC caters to his or her sense of fun and love of booze and banter.
For a week.
In New Zealand.
With helicopters and jet boats.
I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account of my adventures with Team UK, Team Scotland and the rest of the competitors because half the fun of the trip comes from not knowing what they will hit you with next.
Some of BarLifeUK’s readers are bound to take part in the final next year, so I wont spoil the experience for them.
But it is important that you get an idea of just how amazing this trip is so that when 42Below begin asking for entries to the next CWC, you will feel motivated to get involved. So, some personal highlights are called for.
The greatest bartending display I’ve ever seen
The punch round of the CWC took place in Arrowtown, a tiny little gold mining outpost a few miles outside of Queenstown. The town hall was decked out like a crazy scientist’s lab, with mobile bars dotted about the place for each of the teams to do their thing.
When the competition was over, the ever present and ever brilliant 42Below support staff cleared the decks and a few coachloads of local punters were ushered in.
A huge bar had been set up at the far end of the hall. The lights went down, the DJ began earning his pay and the competitors were encouraged to get behind the bar and smash out whatever drinks took their fancy.
What followed was mind blowing. As you can imagine, a little one-upmanship was always on the cards, with each bartender taking a turn determined to upstage the one who had gone before.
Soon, the entire crowd was mashed up against the bar, and the scene more resembled a rock band playing to an audience of fanatical fans than a drinks service.
At points there were five or six competitors working the crowd, many of them having never been behind the bar together before, and yet the performance was manic, seamless and electric.
Everyone was epic, but London Cocktail Club honcho JJ Goodman deserves special mention. He leapt up at the start of the session and the bar backs were cleaning up around him at the end. He was on fire. I’ve not seen someone enjoy themselves behind the bar that much in a long time.
Words don’t really do the night justice. You had to be there, but it was special and I’ve not seen anything like it before in a bar.
The only hangover cure that actually works
I woke up one morning, feeling less than human. And when I say less than human, I mean like something inhuman that had been dead for several weeks.
The coach from the hotel left early, and I was sitting quietly, hanging on to my insides for dear life when we stopped at a place called Shotover Canyon. The morning’s activities would see us take a trip up the river in a jet boat.
Jet boats don’t have a propeller, instead they suck in water at the front and shoot it out of a steerable nozzle at the back. This means they are incredibly fast, can turn on a dime and are quite at home on insanely shallow water.
As we suited up in life jackets and waterproofs, the lady loading the boat took one look at me and said: ‘Lets put you in an outside seat, in case you hurl.”
This seemed to me to be a wise precaution, but Jacob Briars, veteran of God knows how many CWC trips, just said: “Don’t worry, you will feel fine in about 30 minutes.”
The boat slowly chugged out into the river’s flow, and the driver gave us a quick briefing – When I twirl my hand in the air, hang on because a 360 is coming. And don’t stand up because the rocks will take your head off.
With that he dropped the hammer.
I knew the boat would be fast, the word ‘jet’ in its name is a clue, but Jeebus I wasn’t ready for how powerful it felt, and how quickly it could accelerate and turn.
The river runs through a beautiful canyon with sheer cliffs on either side, and the driver took us so close to them that it felt inevitable we would clip one. The sheer speed of the boat forces so much air into your face it is difficult to breathe, and the wind and spray is so cold your face is numb in seconds.
I loved every second of it, and would have quite happily stayed in the boat for another run if I could have. And the mixture of adrenalin, cold wind and spray completely eradicated my hangover. I was literally back to normal after 30 minutes on the Shotover river.
Jacob was right, it might not be something you can carry around in your pocket, but the jet boat is the only hangover cure I’ve experienced that works.
Helicopters + Mountains = Awesome
I find helicopters to be insanely cool. I don’t know why, maybe it was my unhealthy teenage obsession with Vietnam movies. Or maybe it is because in the course of an average life, most people never get to see the inside of one.
Our itinerary on the morning of the Ready, Steady, Shake round cryptically said ‘board buses to the Heli-Line’.
This could only mean one thing right? We are getting a helicopter somewhere?
And sure enough, the busses pulled into an airfield that stank of kerosene and was occasionally battered by the howl of a gas turbine engine and rotor wash.
I honestly can’t remember a time when I was so excited. Our names were called and a number scrawled on the back of our hands. I got lucky number 7 – I would be on the 7th chopper out.
There is something indescribably cool about doing the crouched, shuffle run under spinning rotor blades to the door of a helicopter.
You clamber into the cramped seats, realising quite quickly that the machine is predominantly constructed from Perspex and gaffer tape. Then the pilot’s crackly voice comes at you through the oversized headset clamped to your ears. Is everyone ready? Yes? Then lets go.
The flight to the hilltop where the Ready, Steady, Shake round was staged only took ten minutes or so, and I loved every second of it. I was still buzzing when I finally went to bed that night, and couldn’t sleep for thinking about the experience and wondering how plausible it would be to get my helicopter pilot’s license one day.
However, that was not the end of our aerial adventures. Later in the week, while the competitors were working on their drinks, the competition judges and a couple of lucky journos were taken up again.
This time the flight was much longer, over mountain tops, through valleys to a beautiful, remote plain where we were served a Champagne lunch before flying back to rejoin the rest of the group.
That flight over some of the most amazing scenery I’ve witnessed, in a helicopter, was hands down the coolest thing I’ve ever done. My mind was well and truly blown, both by the experience itself, and that it should come courtesy of my job and this amazing industry. Hats off to you, 42Below.
New Zealand is a long way away, and I decided early on that I would stay there for a while after the CWC had finished.
On the last morning of the trip, when everyone gathered in the hotel lobby to check out and get their bags ready for the flight home, I started to feel a little emotional.
That afternoon I was booked onto a ferry that would take me to Waiheke Island, an idyllic spot with white sand beaches and vineyards to visit.
And yet, I didn’t want to catch that ferry. I wanted to stay with the group, hang out with them, killing time until the flight back to London. I wanted to sit through terrible airline food with them and get a numb arse on the 30-odd hour flight back with them.
I didn’t want to say goodbye to what was probably the best collection of people ever assembled. If I’d had a seat on that plane, I would have, at that moment, sacked off my holiday and flown home with them.
Beyond the bungee, jet boats and helicopters, this is what makes the 42Below Cocktail World Cup so special. Bartenders are the best people to hang out with. To be good enough at the job to make it to the CWC finals, you need a certain type of personality, and that personality makes for great company.
Assemble a bunch of 30 or so characters like this, take them to an amazing place like New Zealand, and as 42Below do, give them everything they need to have a great time, and you have the makings of a once in a lifetime trip that you will never forget.
Going back to our initial question: Is the 42Below Cocktail World Cup all it’s cracked up to be?
There can be only one answer: Yes, and much, much more.
Don’t take an ambassador’s job until you’ve done the trip. Don’t quit bartending until you’ve done the trip. Enter the comp and work your arse off to win your heat.
Until you have a 42Below puffer jacket hanging up in your wardrobe, you haven’t experienced the best this industry has to offer.