There were two spots to Jamaica up for grabs and a very special judge to make sure the right two were chosen.
BarLifeUK had joined Appleton Estate to travel the country judging the heats (read about the here and here) and picking the best 8 to head down to London to compete in a two day competition which would test various facets of their bartending skill.
The Appleton Estate Bartenders Challenge has a reputation of being one of the hardest competitions to win due to the amount of challenges and variety of skills they test during the course of the heats and final. To reach the finals the competitors had already been through a speed round, classic cocktails round and the more usual signature drink round.
The final was divided into two days with day one consisting of 4 challenges and knocking the top 8 down to a top 4 who would compete in a consumer based battle the following day.
For such a big competition and such a big prize BarLifeUK and fellow judge, the last winner of the Appleton Estate Bartenders Challenge, Rich Tring were going to need some help. That came in the form of non-other than David Morrison the Appleton Senior Blender all the way from Jamaica.
An early start saw the final 8 huddled around styrofoam cups of coffee as they embarked on the first challenge of the day, the written test. It wasn’t exactly an easy start to proceedings with Samantha Burke (aka Lady Appleton II) from Gruppo Campari setting some tough questions (we even spotted David furrowing his brow at a couple).
The written test done and it was time to get into some drink making and kicking off was everyones favourite, the Mai Tai Speed Round (well the judges favourite anyway). Each competitor had 5 minutes to make 5 perfectly balanced Mai Tai’s garnish and all. This wasn’t Rematch pace, mainly as we wanted to keep our shirts rum free and have tasty drinks at the end of it.
All eyes were on Bristol’s Chelsie Bailey who had, a couple of nights earlier taken out the 2015 Speed Rack competition during London Cocktail Week. She certainly didn’t disappoint knocking out 5 great drinks with the rum certainly shining through, just how we like it. However it wasn’t quite enough with Lauren ‘Taylor’ Taylor from Hawksmoor Spitalfields pipping her to the best score in the round.
The lunch break is usually the chance to relax and take stock of the day but not at this competition. During lunch they were each called up one at a time to sample a classic rum cocktail, which Rich had knocked up, and then recreate it. Anyone who has tried this knows how hard a challenge it is but you can get an idea of what you are doing through the look of the serve, not here you couldn’t with each drink served ungarnished in a black cup…. we told you this was a tough competition.
If this supremely small test group are anything to go by then it appears Scottish bartenders have the best pallets with the two finalists from north of the border, Johnny Arthur and Shea Campbell from Orchid and Bos’n in Aberdeen respectively, getting the equal top scores in one of the hardest competition rounds we have ever seen.
It was with a sigh of relief that the finalists got to return to familiar ground with the signature drink round. This round made up half of the overall score for the day so the pressure was on to nail both the serve and the presentation.
We were treated to 8 superb stories and drinks but there were four that stood out and once the scores were collated it was those four that advanced to the next days finals. They were, in no particular order:
Lauren ‘Taylor’ Taylor – Hawksmoor Spitalfields, London
Johnny Arthur – Orchid, Aberdeen
Chelsie Bailey – Red Light, Bristol
Joe Wild – 81 Ltd, Liverpool
It must be said that all 8 performed superbly and the standard across all the rounds was fantastic. Chatting to David afterwards he was blown away by the level of skill and passion that shone through. It was the toughest day of competing we have seen in a long time and everyone handled it with humour and camaraderie.
Top Four Shootout
The following evening dozens of rum consumers, bloggers and international guests filtered into the Gruppo Campari offices in The Shard. The room was packed and everyone was relaxed, enjoying the view and ready to enjoy some fabulous rums. Everyone that is apart from our final four, plus one nervous parent.
The relaxing group had gathered to be part of a live twitter tasting of the Appleton Estate range with David and Ian Burrell. There was more to their evening that drinking some fantastic rum and listening to the banter along the way, they were there to help us decide which two bartenders were winning a trip to Jamaica.
Whilst the jollity happened out front, in the back rooms four bartenders were feverishly batching up enough serves for samples to be sent out, all whilst trying to remember their presentation which they were about to give to a room full of strangers.
The rum had been tasted, the cocktails had been batched, Rich (playing both MC and barback) had the crowds attention and it was Joe who was first up.
Joe’s presentation the day before had been one of our favourites, however in a bid to not offend anyone his story now featured a Parisian ‘lady of the night’ and her Jamaican ‘friend’. The story still got the crowd involved and the ingredients tied in with truffle honey syrup representing the french influence alongside some more recognisable rum drink ingredients including falernum and grapefruit juice.
Chelsie followed with her very proud dad front and centre of the expectant crowd. Chelsie also included falernum, however hers had been taken to the next level with some home smoking. This was combined with Appleton 12 and Aperol in a stirred down drink, it was during the stirring that Chelsea broke the third wall and walked through the crowd as she explained her drink, it was a bold move but combined with her funny and interesting presentation the voters lapped it up.
It was Johnny up next and his story revolved around the founder of J. Wray & Nephew (in case you ever wandered what the ‘J’ stood for) John Wray and his adventure one morning after a party in Jamaica. On his wanders he picked up eggs, lemons, sugar, sherry, bitters, port and of course Appleton which, it just so happens, makes up a very tasty drink indeed. The crowd seemed impressed, the only question was whether he would find himself retracing John’s imaginary steps.
Taylor drew on her Irish roots to round out the final four. Her cocktail A Cuppa Tay?, looked at the the historical link between Ireland & Jamaica, including the immortal line ‘the Jamaican accent is Irish as far as I’m concerned’. The tea in the drink came in the form of a tea smoked raisin syrup which was combined with Appleton 12, banana puree and the days favourite ingredient falernum, producing a real crowd pleaser of a serve.
All four competitors did a fantastic job and with the scores so close from the day before (the consumer votes would be added to these) it really was all there for the taking. There was a nervous wait whilst the scores were tallied and then it was over to David to announce the top two who would be heading to Jamaica to hang out with him for a few days at the distillery.
The first winner was Johnny, who celebrated with fist pumps and hugs from his fellow competitors. The second winner was announced with the unusual step of calling her dad up, we weren’t exactly sure who was happier Chelsie or her old man but seeing as he doesn’t get a ticket we’re guessing Chelsie pipped it. The crowd were equally happy with the result and there was plenty of handshakes and back patting all round.
It was an amazing two days and was great to have the Appleton Estate Bartenders Challenge back to test the UK’s bartenders to the limit. All four finalists should be very proud of what they achieved and of representing the UK’s bartenders so well in front of such a large crowd.
Huge thanks to everyone who got involved, to all the venues that hosted us throughout the tour and to our fellow judges Rich and David. Congratulations to Appleton for putting on such a great competition and especially Sam for making it such a superb event.
Chelsie Bailey – Red Light, Bristol
50ml Appleton 12YO
25ml home smoked orange falernum
Stir all ingredients, serve over ice in a rocks glass. Orange zest garnish.
Johnny Arthur – Orchid, Aberdeen
J. Wray’s Cave
37.5ml Appleton Reserve Blend
12.5ml Tio Pepe Fino Sherry
30ml fresh lemon juice
3 barspoons superfine sugar
15ml egg white
1 Dash Angostura Bitters
20ml port (float)
Add all ingredients aside from port to a shaker. Dry Shake. Hard Shake. Double strain into a half pint tankard over cubed Ice. Pour port on top. Flamed clove studded orange zest (dropped in).