It wasn’t like any cocktail comp I’ve been involved in before, but it was a whole lot of fun.
Anyone that is familiar with the BarLifeUK competition write-ups will know that at the end we thank various people including the brand who ran the comp. Well this time that’s being moved front and centre.
Right at the start of lockdown Jägermeister called us and said they still wanted to do their Meister Hunter competition, they were going to work on the concept, but they thought people needed something to distract and entertain them. Oh, and there was the not insignificant matter of £5K worth of prize money.
Since then the Jäger team have put together a fantastic competition and not been afraid to adjust it when it needed a tweak all, culminating in a Zoom based final last night that was seamless and hugely enjoyable.
The Lockdown Format
The adjusted format went like this. People entered their drink via Instagram with £100 spot prizes for entries that contained something that caught their eye. From here a judging group picked the top 10 for the final. So far pretty standard (although Meister Hunter usually have regional heats), but it was the next stage that was tricky.
Each of the ten finalists was delivered a package which contained one box and address label for each judge, empty bottles, packing bubbles and a bottle each of Jägermeister, Manifest and Cold Brew. The idea was they were to enhance the ‘at home, delivered cocktail experience’ and were provided with £40 to do this (some definitely put some of their own cash in as well).
These boxes were delivered to the 5 judges the day before the final, bottles were put in the fridge and on the night they would be given up to 8 minutes to present their drink and explain their experience whilst we, the judges, made their drinks.
The Final Countdown
So yesterday I found myself just before the comp was about to kick off pacing my kitchen which was full of boxes and, as it turned out completely unnecessary, cocktail equipment. It was a strange feeling, one I haven’t had in a rather long time, I was genuinely excited about something, I was looking forward to judging people again (I miss judging people, judging cats just doesn’t have the same effect), I was a little nervous.
Sure it wasn’t quite the same as being in a bar, there was no nervous brand person trying to work out who hadn’t turned up yet, no frantic calling of said bartender whilst his mate tells me that he was last seen at 4 in the morning with only one functioning eye and on route to that cities version of Garibaldi’s. There were also no ‘supporters’ knocking back the welcome drinks, no bartenders running around asking anyone if they have a spare fine strainer, no brand person bumming a cigarette, no fellow judge bumming a pen, but it was still exciting.
Speaking of fellow judges (seamless, bloody seamless) we were joined by Florian Beuren, UK’s Mr Jägermeister; Ellie Reasdale, reigning Meister Hunter champion; Simon Difford, he of Difford’s Guide and Marian Beke, owner/bartender of Gibson. A pretty impressive line-up I think you’ll agree.
We logged into Zoom (there were a couple of rooms, one for the competitors to hang out and the ‘Judges Room’ where the presentations happened), I opened a can of generic weak lager, had the obligatory judges shot of Jager, grabbed the first box and the chilled bottled drink and we were off into a brave new world.
Thinking Outside The Box
At the bottom of this article you will find all the drink specs and a look at each competitor but for the sake of brevity here are some highlights.
It has to be said the effort that the finalists had put into these boxes was fantastic, all the pent-up creativity under lockdown had been unleashed in gaggle of cardboard. We had delicious homemade snacks, some wonderfully designed instructions, a lot of decorations to help transport us somewhere else, playlists to match the mode and many things that simply put a smile on my face.
The creativity hadn’t been all used up in the boxes, there was a whole lot left for the drinks themselves, helped by the open criteria for entry – the drink must contain 35ml of one of the Jager range….. that’s it. If last year was the year of Jägermeister Manifest this year it was Jägermeister Cold Brew that seemed to be the preferred option. The list of ingredients and flavours that were matched to the Jager was seemingly endless. Having to, in most cases, come up with a drink without the use of a giant backbar had led to a vast amount of creativity in the ingredients used. Some flavour matches I wouldn’t have even put in the same room as Jager end up knocking boots fantastically. It was a real lesson in not always relying on your backbar when getting creative.
One thing that I didn’t realise I had missed as much as it turns out I have, is the seemingly boundless enthusiasm and energy of bartenders. Even through the medium of a type of communication I find more awkward than any other I found myself constantly disappointed when Florian told them their time was up. During their presentations we mainly had our mics off, as when we made our drinks Zoom would pick up the noise and flick to one of the judges, Benji Davies summed up everyone’s thoughts when he was told we were muting – ‘This is the most people I’ve had to talk to in ages and you’re leaving me already’.
It what seemed like in no time at all the last competitor had left the Zoom room. I looked around my kitchen at the sea of cardboard boxes and countertop full of glassware, decorations and empty bottles and realised I also missed barbacks. It was time to tot up scores and have the traditional judges argument. They were being judged on three categories – Box Presentation, Taste and Demonstration, each one equally weighed.
As it turned out the judges agreed and rather handily for this journalist the top three each topped one of my category scores. This is a competition where top three really matters because while first place gets £3K, second gets £1.5K and third £500, very handy right now.
In third place and winner of the Simon Webster Box Award came Cai Anderson from Manchester with his drink Master or Meister. Even before this box was opened you knew it was going to be good as he was the only competitor to decorate the outside, but inside, wow inside. It was an explosion of colour with confetti everywhere (I’ll be picking it out of crevices for weeks), and more presents than any Christmas I can remember. There was candyfloss, popcorn, a Golden Ticket, playlist, bottles of various liquids all designed to keep you entertained whilst your drink chilled.
As a group we made spherification of an element of the drink which took me back to science class but with a passionate teacher and alcohol. The enthusiasm that obviously went into the box was matched by Cai as he presented, talking us through everything. The drink was designed to be served how you like it with the different elements being combined in different amounts to suit your taste. So much fun. Apologies I didn’t get a photo I was having way to much fun playing with everything.
In second place and winner of the Simon Webster Presentation Award was Hannah Lockett from Petit Café Du Coin in Liverpool. Feeding on both her, and Liverpool’s, love of disco we were off. The sign of a good presentation is when you get to the end feeling like it’s only been 2 minutes and suddenly realise you know more stuff than when you started.
Her natural way of engaging as she talked us through her ingredients inspired by Chinese medicine and general good for you stuff was as accessible as her drink. The Saxon Spritz combined Jägermeister, cherry, dandelion, burdock and vermouth before being topped with tonic. Her box was not an afterthought either with professional looking instructions, usb stick, disco playlist and very welcome mini cheddars. She even thought to put a mini bottle of prosecco in for bribery purposes.
However the overall winner and, I’m sure equally as treasured, winner of the Simon Webster Drink Award was Benji Davies of Little Mercies in London. Last year Benji came third and you could tell that wasn’t good enough for him, this year he was back to win and did it in style. From his kitchen he told us that he had got into fermentation, and when Benji gets into something he doesn’t hold back, his bathroom has been turned into a fermentation room.
His box and drink were based around lockdown Chinese takeaways with everything in the box keeping with the theme from the brown paper bag to the takeaway containers holding all the goodies. As always his presentation was very relaxed and full of info and enthusiasm but the drink……. If you have ever tried a drink with, or tried to make a drink with, sesame oil you will know how badly wrong it can go. Not here, not by a long shot. The drink (full specs below) was balanced so perfectly that every flavour came through with none dominating and begged you to go back in for another taste. I really hope it finds its way onto Little Mercies next menu so you can all try it.
And so it was done. Congratulations poured into Benji and one by one people logged off the Zoom chat. I’d had a really great evening. A little glimpse into what I’ve been missing these last few months. It made me want this lockdown to be over more than ever. I miss you lot, your depressingly young and happy faces, your ridiculous drinks, your ability to transport me to a better place.
So thank you to each competitor for cheering a grumpy old man up, to Jägermeister (again) and to my wife for managing to get a Deliveroo to turn up in the 10 minute window we had for a break.
There will be a video of the highlights coming your way soon, keep an eye out.
First Place – Benji Davies, Little Mercies, London
The Shaolin Monk
35ml Jägermeister sesame washed with peach stone
30ml peach wine
70ml fermented ginger and white rice soda
Second Place – Hannah Lockette, Petit Café Du Coin, Liverpool
The Saxon Spirtz
30ml cherry shrub
25ml dandelion & burdock
15ml dry vermouth
Topped with tonic
Third Place – Cai Anderson, Manchester
Master or Meister
40ml Jägermeister Manifest
15ml Gin Sul
10ml Jägermeister Cold Brew & soy tincture
35ml hunters shrub
75ml coconut & mango soda
The rest are placed in the order they presented.
Andrew Meltzer, Happiness Forgets, London First up was Andrew an American who came to London 6 months ago as a base to travel Europe, oppps. His box contained a hand-written note with the story behind his Brothers & Sisters serve which was a great mix of Jägermeister Cold Brew, sultana infused scotch and orgeat which went particularly well with his homemade Jager & cardamom meringue.
Tatjana Sendzmir, Fam Bar, London Tatjana was calling in from Connecticut where she was visiting family when the lockdown came in. With help from friends at Heads + Tails & Swift she had managed to get her Jager Cold Brew infused with maraschino mixed with grape spirit, apricot liqueur and a rye infused with butter and breadcrumbs. A full flavoured twist on a Manhattan.
Lil Love Dumpling
35ml Jägermeister Cold Brew infused with maraschino cherries
12.5ml grape spirit
12.5ml apricot liqueur
12.5ml rye fat washed with buttery breadcrumbs
Ryan Snedden, Tigerlilly, Edinburgh Ryan Snedden had his birthday the day before, having known Ryan for many years I can guarantee he didn’t let a lockdown stop him enjoying himself, yet he still had more energy than I have after a week lying on a beach. Unfortunately, shortly after he started my internet blew up so I missed most of his presentation, but the other judges reliably inform me it was very good and the drink certainly was, a really refreshing serve of tasty.
Matthew Ball, Papillon, Liverpool Internet rebooted and Matthew transformed my kitchen into a tiki bar complete with paper pineapple. He wanted to transport us away from normality with a twist on Jager classic Surfer On Acid, making it a sophisticated tiki drink. The Meister Milk Punch he created was a very drinkable serve with a fantastic label design on the bottle.
Meister Milk Punch
120ml coconut rum
120ml pineapple juice
50ml black tea
50ml lemon juice
50ml whole milk
Tomislav Pandza, Fumo, Birmingham Tomislav had made the brave move of carbonating an element of his When Hunter Met Strawberry, although mine had leaked a little in transit there was still plenty of fizz left and when mixed with his strawberry kvass (a fermented beverage) transformed into a summery strawberry highball.
When Hunter Met Strawberry
10ml Lillet blanc
Top with strawberry kvass* *Kvass recipe – 500ml boiled water cooled down, 300g strawberries, 100g white sugar
Bianca Hajnal, 200 Degrees, Nottingham Our penultimate competitor was a barista/bartender called Bianca so it was no surprise that it was the Cold Brew she reached for combined with elderflower and orange. Her box was full of delights with beautifully designed and printed instruction cards and the finest of snacks – cookies, bacon peanuts, popcorn and breadsticks that Simon couldn’t believe hadn’t broken in transit. Put down the tamper and pick up a shaker Bianca, join the dark side.
Stevie Kane, Baccarat Bar, London Stevie Kane was last up and what a great way to end. He transported us to the country with pinecones, pictures and a campfire scented candle. His drink was one of the cleverest of the day, using woodruff (or waldmeister in German – see what he did there?) and Manifest to create a very complex and delicious drink which was brought to life by the liquorice salt.
45ml Jägermeister Manifest
40ml Cidre Breton (1% citric acid)
2 dsh Angostura bitters
1 pinch liquorice salt
Top with woodruff & kampot red pepper soda
*Some of these recipes are based on their entry specs and may have changed slightly for the final – I was too busy making drinks to keep my usual notes.