Gabriel Brown, of Hawksmoor Air Street, becomes the 2019 Hayman’s True Taste champion
The line between innovation and gimmickry within the gin category is very thin. On one side of that line are the kind of brands who put flavoured spirit into flowery pink bottles and wave them in the general direction of a juniper bush, and on the other side you find companies like Hayman’s, who are guided by authenticity and tradition.
That’s not to say Hayman’s are an old fashioned distillery, or that they are against innovation, rather that their way of approaching new products is driven by flavour and a set of principles laid down 150 years ago, not flash-in-the-pan fads and Instagram trends.
The Hayman’s True Taste competition – and its prize of a distilling apprenticeship that results in a signature gin – is very much a reflection of this ethos. While the competition has a theme (2018 – Great English Moments; 2019 – Hidden English Heroes), having judged it for two years, it strikes me that the competition is really about fundamental bartending skills and knowledge. You don’t need to be flashy to win True Taste, but you absolutely need to know your shit, because various stages of the comp contain challenges that can’t be blagged. You either know this stuff or you don’t.
The 2019 True Taste competition began the same way as last year’s comp. Bartenders submitted a signature drink containing either Hayman’s London Dry, Old Tom, or Sloe Gin, along with an explanation of their method, and how the drink represented their chosen hidden English hero. The resulting entries were paper judged, with the successful bartenders invited to regional heats in Bristol, London x 2, Manchester, Sheffield, and Edinburgh. These heats were judged by Hayman’s ambassador Chris Bryant-Mansell, 2018 True Taste winner Jordan Sweeney, and BarLifeUK.
At the regional heats, competitors were tasked with presenting their signature serve, followed by a second ‘gin classics’ round in which they pulled a cocktail name from a hat and made it from memory. While the signature drinks at all the heats were universally good, many bartenders fell down on the classics round, with the specs for the Hanky Panky, Army and Navy, and, surprisingly, Gimlet, proving particularly challenging. As mentioned at the start of this piece, True Taste challenges fundamental knowledge and skills, and in several cases a fantastic signature drink and entertaining presentation were let down by a competitor not knowing how to make a Gimlet.
The six regional heat winners converged on Hayman’s Balham distillery last week for the grand final, during which the fundamental skills of understanding flavour, and gin knowledge would be tested during a full day of challenges.
Flavour was the subject of the first test. A couple of weeks before the final, the competitors had been given a list of ingredients that included pickled onion, beetroot, carrot, rose, and nettles, and asked to select one and create a Hayman’s Gin cocktail that focussed purely on matching and enhancing its flavour. When working with non-standard cocktail ingredients such as these, there are fewer classic or existing drinks to riff on, and the resulting cocktails were all very different and quite reflective of personal taste.
Jacob Drew’s ‘Red Velvet Ramos’ was a rich, creamy beetroot Ramos twist that could sit as comfortably on a desert menu as it would a cocktail list. Sam Milne’s ‘Sare Knees’ paired nettles with sloe gin and a Tennent’s lager foam head to create a very complex and uniquely Scottish cocktail. Calum Adams’ ‘Rooted in History’ made use of a beetroot from root to stem to create a beautifully vibrant cocktail that went in a completely different direction to Jacob’s, despite sharing a core ingredient. Tom Hughes’ ‘What’s Up Tom’ made use of every part of the carrot, and was served with delicious carrot cake on coasters made from carrot pulp. Dan Smithson’s ‘Clear Roots’ employed a clarified, carbonated carrot soda to create a very clean, boozy aperitif-style drink. And Gabriel Brown’s ‘Pigmalion’ cocktail somehow combined rose and coffee liqueur to create a delicate, tasty drink that could probably win any comp he chose to enter it in.
The second round of the day, and the challenge that caused the most anxiety among the competitors, took place in the distillery’s lab. A range of dry botanicals, distillates, and cocktails were placed in front of the bartenders, who were asked to describe and identify each one by nosing and tasting alone. Again harping back to the theme of fundamental skills, there is no way to fake this sort of challenge – you either know how to do this, or you don’t. BarLifeUK didn’t judge this challenge, but having seen the score sheets, it comes as no surprise that the ultimate winner of the competition, Gabriel Brown, scored higher than anyone else in the laboratory challenge.
The final challenge of the day saw the competitors take to the stage and present their signature serves to the judging panel. Having made these drinks during the regional heats, and having spent a day in each other’s company, the bartenders were perhaps a little more relaxed than they had been earlier in the day, despite this being the competition’s climax, and the presentations were universally polished and entertaining, and had this round been scored in isolation, it would have been very difficult to pick a clear winner.
However, as is always the case with multi-stage competitions, a bartender needs to ace each element of the contest in order to win. While everyone did exceptionally well at least one of the three challenges, Gabriel Brown nailed all three, and was universally scored the ultimate winner by the judging panel of Miranda Hayman, James Hayman, Chris Bryant-Mansell, Jordan Sweeney, and BarLifeUK.
Gabriel’s signature serve, ‘Lionel’s Twist’, which was themed for Oliver! creator Lionel Bart, paired peated whisky with tea cordial and Hayman’s Old Tom Gin to create a simple, perfectly balanced and eminently drinkable cocktail. In combination with a beautiful first round drink, and top marks in the laboratory challenge, Gabriel’s performance at the True Taste final demonstrated a mastery of the fundamental bartending skills of flavour manipulation and spirits and cocktail knowledge, and we have no doubt that the Hayman’s Bartender Edition Gin that will result at the end of his distilling apprenticeship will be a worthy successor to 2018 winner Jordan Sweeney;s True English Hopped Gin.
Huge thanks must go to everyone who entered the 2019 Hayman’s True Taste Competition, and to the Hayman family for creating what has become one of the best and most challenging competition on the circuit for many years.
The 2019 Hayman’s True Taste Finalists
Jacob Drew – Doctor Inks Curiosities, Exeter
Tom Hughes – Hide Below, London
Gabriel Brown – Hawksmoor Air Street, London
Calum Adams – Hypha, Chester
Dan Smithson – Below Stairs, Leeds
Sam Nicolson Milne – Ninety Nine Bar and Kitchen, Aberdeen
The 2019 Hayman’s True Taste Winner
Gabriel Brown – Hawksmoor Air Street, London
50ml Hayman’s Old Tom Gin
20ml Earl Grey cordial (1:1 Cold Earl Grey Tea and sugar + citric acid)
Dash of soda