Ten bartenders converged on Leeds to compete for a trip to Kentucky and the honour of having their name immortalised at the brand new Old Forester Distillery.
As we sat in Neon Cactus on Call Lane, bartenders began to arrive from around the country, like moths to a flame or journalists to a free bar. As they chatted and mingled that all too familiar atmosphere with nervous chatter, twitchy humour and pensive stories of previous competitions started to build.
The nerves were understandable as the prize was one of the best we have seen in a long time. The opportunity for three of them to not only visit the site of the currently under construction new Old Forester Distillery, but to have their names engraved on a plaque for every visitor to see over the decades to come. A real bourbon geek’s dream.
Neon Cactus provided the holding area before we moved on to the main venue for the evening’s competition, Manahatta. After a bite to eat in a private dining room, while the bar was prepared with more lights than a Vegas showroom, the judges in the form of BarLifeUK, Brown Forman American Whiskey Ambassador Tom Vernon and local blogger from The Leeds Foodie, Kyle, took their seats.
Each of the competitors were charged with re-creating the drink that had seen them through their heats whilst keeping the judges and a room full of spectators entertained.
First up came Alex Palumbo from Brighton’s Salt Room who had impressed us in the heat with his drink and technique. His chamomile infused eggs once again impressed and the drink is still one we would definitely order next time we head down to see him in Brighton, however, time was against him on the day.
After seeing that, Josh Ambrose from Blind Tiger in Liverpool was taking no chances and pulled out the triple shake for his superbly balanced drink, and combined with his excellent presentation and brand knowledge, we had an early contender. Down from Tippling House in Aberdeen, was Andy Stewart, who’s “Carter Cash” cocktail was made with a backing track by The Man in Black. The drink had a great spice element to it, mixed with an unusual flavour that needs to be used more, Sapin (Fir) liqueur.
Adam Day from Corridor in Manchester was not only representing himself and his city, but the BarLifeUK Rookie Programme. With near faultless bar skills, aplomb presentation and story based on Mary Pickfords last film released in 1933, it was all round representation of fantastic bartending.
Also focusing on a 1933 event came hometown lad Iain Silver, from Pintura, with his “Fighting Finish” cocktail based on the Kentucky Derby that year. He also featured plenty of US flavours including a pecan syrup and coffee sugar syrup.
In a competition that contained so many interesting and unusual flavours, Emily Reynolds from Blind Pig in Manchester did well to stand out. Who else could pull off an injection (yep injection) of Vimto into her Old Forester, Chartreuse, apple, garlic and ginger drink? It was delicious. Fighting with Adam for presentation of the day was Bristol’s Rose Brookman from Amoeba, whose tasty New York Sour twist was backed up with fantastic skills and knowledge that had Tom impressed (not an easy feat).
When a bartender from the American Bar steps up at the final of a competition people take notice, and the fact that Dominic Whisson had beaten such a strong field only heightened expectations. There are not many bartenders who can include kummel, Cocchi Americano, Pedro Ximenez and creole bitters in a drink and still have it balanced enough to let the Old Forester come through, but Dom managed it.
The penultimate competitor hailed from the Bon Vivant in Edinburgh and Miram Chauhan drew on his beer background, tying it in with Beer Repeal and a homemade beer reduction in a very well-conceived drink. Rounding out the evening was Robert Squire from Haycock & Tailbar Associates in Leicester, who used an ingredient so American, we felt like saluting a flag. Sarsaparilla can be a very overpowering ingredient but, Rob managed to allow the Old Forester to come through at the end, which was a great trick.
Judging the final of a competition is never an easy job (it’s not exactly being a junior doctor, mind you) as everyone must have excelled to be there. We took an Old Forester and retired to the judging room to discuss, argue and decide. Having to choose three instead of one made the decision markedly easier and despite a quick wrestle between BarLifeUK and Tom (after which not a hair on his head was out of place) we came to agreement on our well-deserved top three.
Those people heading to the US for the trip of a lifetime are Andy Stewart, Josh Ambrose and Rose Brookman. They thoroughly deserve their prize and beat an exceptionally tough field of competitors. In the end it was the drinks and presentations that captured the celebration feel of Repeal Day that won out, and left us wondering just how great those parties all those years ago must have been.
All that was left to do was celebrate with the winners and commiserate with those who didn’t quite make the grade, and what better city to enjoy ourselves in than Leeds. Mojo and Jake’s Bar were thoroughly investigated and, as always, the hospitality we were shown by the Leeds bar community was epic.
We will be bringing you news on the trip to Kentucky and the new distillery later in the year but for now a huge thanks to everyone who competed and came along to support the competition throughout the heats and final. Also to Old Forester for organising not only a great competition but such a superb and unique prize.
Josh Ambrose – Blind Tiger, Liverpool
Power of Perseverance (featured picture)
40ml Old Forester
10ml Floc White
15ml IPA reduction
1 dash absinthe
1 dash Peychauds Bitters
Shake all ingredients except champagne and double strain into a chilled coupette, top champagne.
Andy Stewart – Tippling House, Aberdeen
40ml Old Forester
10ml sweet vermouth
10ml Creme de Sapin
2.5ml jalapeño and ghost pepper infused overproof rum
5ml simple syrup
1 dash Fee Bros Whisky Barrel Bitters
Stirred whilst listening to Johnny Cash, julep strained in a cut crystal glass. Garnish with pine twig, spray of diluted Creme de Sapin and some Alabama Three on in the background.
Rose Brookman – Amoeba, Bristol
The Great Amendment
50ml Old Forester
25ml homemade spiced cranberry syrup
1/4 teaspoon citric acid
12.5ml fruity red wine
Put old forester, spiced cranberry syrup, citric acid and egg white in a Boston tin and shake with ice. Shake again without ice and pour into glass. Pour red wine in slowly to form a float under the foam.