6 bartenders, 5 days, 4 hangovers, 3 (hundred) Gin & Tonics, 2 bars and 1 infinity pool. It can only be the Gin Mare UK Final 2013.
As I sat on the plane on the runway at Ibiza airport ready to be whisked back to London I thought, not for the first time over the preceding 5 days, just how much I felt like I was living The Hangover. Okay there was no monkey and Mike Tyson hadn’t punched me but there is something about the Gin Mare finals that give that surreal haze to the experience.
However I seemed to have jumped forward, let’s go back to the same airport 5 days earlier where a group of wide eyed, excited bartenders gathered ready to take Ibiza by the scruff of the neck and show it’s vajazzled nether regions who was boss.
The occasion was the Gin Mare Mediterranean Inspirations Competition. Over the previous months an intrepid band of judges had scoured the UK for 6 bartenders to win a trip of a lifetime to Ibiza for the final. Those 6 were ready for action and whilst during this early morning gathering most were basically strangers by the end of this trip they would all be firm friends.
Our protagonists in this production were:
Tiago Miro from One Aldwych victor in the 1st London Heat
Gent James of Fox & Monkey who won the Bristol Heat
Terri Brotherston from The Last Word Saloon who claimed the win in Edinburgh
Sam Fish from Mojo Leeds winner of the Manchester Heat
Ali Reynolds of Hawksmoor who was victorious in the 2nd London Heat
Natasha Ivanova our Wild Card from The Finnieston in Glasgow who impressed in the Edinburgh Heat
The nervous energy in the van on the way to our home for the next few days was mixed with an air of palpable excitement. The unique element of having a UK final overseas is that everyone, with a risk of sounding like an X Factor host, already feels like a winner.
As the finalists stepped foot into their home for the next few days, Villa Mare, the nerves dissipated, the excitement grew and that winning feeling bubbled over into ohhhs, ahhhs, yelps and mutterings of ‘Gin & Tonic time?’. There is something about a villa with views over the spectacular northern Ibiza countryside and sea, an infinity pool and two fully stocked bars that will get that response.
After an afternoon of relaxing (helped by the Ibiza Angels massaging services) it was time for a master class with one of the most beautiful backdrops I have ever seen. As the sun set over the glass like sea the gang were bathed in an orange hue. Mr Gin Mare, Jorge Blabontin, gave the UK representatives a look at the current trends in the Spanish bar industry and some of the interesting pairings that Gin Mare had recently developed. It must have been a good talk as most of the time people were looking at Jorge as opposed to the scenery.
After a night out with the Gin Mare family at a restaurant sampling the local cuisine and wine the next morning saw Villa Mare immersed in beautiful morning sunshine. The excitement and bravado of the night before had been replaced by that original nervous energy. This was, after all, finals day and with a place in the global final, 2 extra days in Ibiza and the chance to win £4.5K there was a lot at stake.
As the final preparations on the drinks and garnishes took place around us it was obvious to see that in less than 24 hours a real camaraderie had built up around the final 6. Advice was being given (and more importantly received), ingredients being shared, calming words to the left of me, encouraging words to the right and there I was with a breakfast Gin Mare & Tonic.
Judging competitions is a good life. Sitting down whilst someone makes a unique drink just for you that they’ve put lots of time and effort into is a marvellous way to spend an afternoon. Sitting in the sunshine on a Mediterranean Island with blue skies and crystal clear water makes it even more enjoyable.
Joining BarLifeUK on this tough judging panel were Stuart ‘Used to moustache’ Ekins from CASK Liquid Marketing, Jennie ‘This song reminds me of’ Chuter from BarChick who had been ever present during the UK heats. Alongside us were the aforementioned Jorge and in a unique twist Natasha Bailey who had won a consumer competition through BarChick to come and judge the final with us. It was brilliant having a consumer view on board the panel and something I hope more competitions do.
So we were off and first out of the hat was, as she had been in the Edinburgh heat, Natasha. As in the heats each competitor had to make a drink inspired by the Mediterranean which Natasha tied brilliantly with a story about a previous holiday she’d had to a Spanish island. It was a lovely summery drink to start to day with and quickly followed up by her Dirty Martini twist with a kick of tequila balancing her homemade ‘Spanish’ vermouth.
Ali was up next and took us on a journey through the Mediterranean (with a slight detor to South America) during his two drinks. Whilst his maths may not have been spot on as he declared ‘15ml in each drink…. giving 35ml in total’, his Dirty Martini twist using a salted Coke reduction was one of the drinks of the day. As we have come to expect Ali’s banter was spot on but the legs were a little bit of a shock!
Tiago was certainly the suavest of the group and that continued in his presentation. His Dirty Martini involved heating ham, olives and bay leaf in Gin Mare giving a great flavour to the drink and superb garnish alongside. However it was the appearance of his Med inspired drink that really caught everyone’s attention, the first time I have ever seen a drink camouflaged against an horizon before.
Terri brought more than a Scottish skin tone to proceedings with some lovely scotch being used in her Dirty Martini twist to great effect especially when paired with the preserved lemon slice garnish. However it was her Med inspired drink that really stood out for the judges. Balancing the Gin Mare with Kummel, red pepper syrup and lemon was never going to be an easy task but despite a misbehaving shaker Terri nailed it.
The resident mad scientist of the group Gent James was up next and the camaraderie of the group was immediately evident when his mixing glass broke and in a flash other competitors were on hand with replacements. Along with the best hat of the day Gent’s food matching was a stand out. His Dirty Martini twist was superbly matched and tied together with a great story and his Med inspired was one of the most refreshing and elegant of the day.
Rounding out the final was Sam who won line of the day when the dreaded jigger shakes kicked in and she announced ‘I’m not nervous I just believe you should shake a drink as you make it’. Sam’s presentation was flawless, engaging the judges and spectators and her Med inspired drink was right up there with the drinks of the day proving balanced simplicity can produce a stunning drink which emphasised the hero Gin Mare perfectly.
After a tough judges deliberation which saw the finalists separated by less than 2% of the 1,000 points up for grabs it was Hawksmoor’s Ali Reynolds who came out on top. Ali was through to the global final two days later and the chance to bag £4.5K.
It was superb to see the friendships that had built up over the previous 24 hours with all the competitors watching, supporting and interacting as the competition unfolded and that group spirit was shown when they celebrated by all jumping en masse into the pool.
Jennie managed to keep her mantle of judges quote of the day when declaring that ‘Stu’s got his funster out!’. Sam got revenge for losing by pushing Ali into the pool whilst he still had his iPhone in his pocket (more on that story in the Global Final write up) and the UK once again showed all those watching just how strong its drinks scene is with such quality and depth across all the drinks and presentations. A huge congratulations to all 6.
The advantage of having a comp in Ibiza is that even those who didn’t win (losers seems a tad harsh) got to enjoy some of the best this island had to offer for another 24 hours yet. The night saw us heading to iconic nightclub Space where I felt more out of place than Jamie Jones at a slam dunk competition.
Everyone was having a ball as we knocked back Gin Mare & Tonics in our VIP area but I was thrown by being at the same height as the podium where a scantily dressed young lady with a lovely bottom was gyrating. It felt rude to look but as soon as I turned away I thought it might be rude not to look so turned around again. This went on for about 5 minutes until I had whiplash and had to get another drink.
The following day I was in more familiar surroundings. Last year I visited Chris Edwards and Amanda Blanch’s new bar Hidden. I fell in love with it and announced it one of my favourite bars in the world. On route the following day I had the sudden realisation that perhaps I had over egged it and wouldn’t enjoy it as much this time round.
As I walked in all fears were waylaid. There are some places in the world that make you feel immediately at home, Hidden is one of those. In fact it might even be better than last year. A new chef was knocking out superb dishes, the crazy golf course has had a revamp, India is behind the bar helping Chris out and to top it all Amanda and I watched as Liverpool beat Man Utd!
A rather bedraggled and hazy group of remaining finalists (Ali had to stay at Villa Mare to meet the international bartenders – winning isn’t everything apparently) wondered into the bar shortly after we had arrived and a few Pina Coladas, Watermelon Daiquiris and cold beers quickly lifted their spirits and we were off on another afternoon of drinking and nonsense talking.
Before we knew it the time had come for flights home to be caught by the 5 unlucky finalists (we were staying on for a couple of extra days for the Global Final). For the second year running we had been treated to an amazing group of people to spend time with in Ibiza. They had all done themselves and the UK exceptionally proud in the final and there was already talk of a reunion back in the UK very soon.
I’m sure they would all like me to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved with the competition from Gin Mare, of whom there are too many to name, for the most amazing hospitality and experience going. The CASK crew for putting on such a great UK competition and finally the chef at Villa Mare who kept everyone going for 3 non-stop days.
The plans for next years comp are already in place so keep an eye out for the details, you do not want to miss out (I get the feeling most of this years crew will be chancing their arm again) and keep an eye on BarLifeUK in the next couple of days for the write up of the Global Final to see how Ali got on.