It was time to find out how creative London’s bartenders are.
For those not familiar with the WhistlePig competition, the name, ‘No History, No Rules’, should give you an idea of what the brand are after. Most Rye cocktails that are known by bartenders were either invented 100 years ago or are twists on those style of drinks. WhistlePig wanted bartenders to forget those shackles and be free to create whatever they wanted.
After going through the dozens of London entries we whittled it down to 14 competitors. With that done we found ourselves in Swift Shoreditch with fellow judges Jake O’Brien Murphy, Moët Hennessy’s in house cocktail guru and Robyn Evans, boss lady at Hacha and general troublemaker. The bar was packed with competitors and supporters, but the lovely Swift team were keeping everyone watered with coffee or WhistlePig highballs depending on their general post weekend state.
Each of the 14 bartenders in attendance would be tasked with the same mission. Create three serves of their unique cocktail in 8 minutes whilst entertaining the judges and crowd with their chat. Sounds easy enough but as any of you reading this who have competed in a competition will know, it ain’t ever as simple as it sounds. For those reading this who haven’t competed in a comp ‘you don’t know man, you weren’t there’.
Dan Priseman, Steward of the Brand, got the crowd hyped up with a quick briefing and a shot of WhistlePig to calm the nerves (one of those two things got the crowd hyped, I’ll let you decide which) and we were off.
Over the next couple of hours we were treated to some great drinks and chat including:
Robert Shaw from Callooh Callay kicking things off with a fantastic presentation that somehow managed to marry little pot-bellied pigs with iPlayer’s in a Vietnamese street food inspired serve.
Cacao was the ingredient of the day, Alan Silva from Annabel’s got WhistlePig cacao, hazelnut, Cynar and olive brine work together, not just work but produce a great drink. Fallow Restaurant’s Markus Basset produced one of the ingredients of the day with his Cacao Dream, a heady mix of cacao cold brew, raspberry pickle, vinegar, salt, sugar, cherry and chocolate bitters, which was according to my notes ‘fucking lovely’. Also, a shout out to Giorgio Rima of the Lanesborough who doubled down with the Cacao using both crème and bitters variations in his first cocktail competition, for a drink that tasted and looked great and importantly let the WhistlePig shine.
It wasn’t all about the liquid in the glass though, we were also entertained thoroughly, none more so than Sam Bovey from London Cocktail Club. He based his serve around his mum’s favourite snack when he was growing up, just a ‘Little Something’, a Ryvita with cream cheese, grapes, pepper and lemon juice. Queue 8 minutes of chat about Sam’s childhood which I enjoyed so much I made no notes whatsoever. The drink however I do remember, a lovely refreshing serve which thankfully starred the pepper and WhistlePig way more than the cream cheese!
If you aren’t aware of the Facebook account ‘Overheard in Waitrose’ I suggest checking it out, and I think I’m going to launch a separate ‘Overheard in a London Cocktail Comp’ version inspired by Bart Miedeksza of Crossroads Bar uttering ‘What’s a bar without citric acid?’, one of many gags during a great presentation which ended in a superb drink that made me wish I had tasted peppercorn infused balsamic earlier in my life.
Other highlights included the Connaught’s Riccardo Lugano who took us on ‘An Unexpected Journey’ with ingredients, including sherry, vermouth, verjus and tonka, representing the stops on his trip. It was the mace syrup that hit the no rules element of the brief and brought the drink alive. One of my favourite stories of the day came from Ilaria Carone of Annabel’s who told a tale of the WhistlePig distilleries pig Mortimer escaping and heading to the Ben & Jerry’s factory down the road (if I was a pig that’s where I’d head), all resulting in an indulgent affogato twist.
There were, however, two competitors who stood out from the crowd. Two competitors who will be heading to the final to be in with a shout of winning one of the three trips to the WhistlePig distillery in Vermont later in the year.
Emanuele ‘Lele’ Mensah from Lyaness was a giant ball of energy and smiles from the moment he stepped behind the bar, I somehow felt more energetic by the time he’d finished. His drink was a tropical inspired drink without the gallons of fruit, instead using a caramelised butternut squash syrup to bring the sweetness, alongside a mangosteen tincture. It all balanced perfectly with the WhistlePig and to top it all off he produced some crazy cute homemade pig chocolates.
Our other finalist is ex-Rookie Mia Kumari from Homeboy who didn’t let being last up phase her. I don’t have a list of things to avoid in a cocktail competition but if I did blue cheese, weetos and throwing a drink in a white top would all be on it. Yet somehow Mia managed to bring those all together in a drink that, if I’m honest, I was annoyed I liked as much as I did. The flavour combination was inspired by her current favourite post shift ‘what have I got to eat’ snack of weetos and cheese, which is exactly what we hoped to see from the competition.
We now have six finalists with the London top two joining those from Birmingham and Bristol. Next up we have Glasgow and Leeds, chuck in two wildcards (that’s gonna be a big argument) and we’ll have our final 12 for the end battle.
Big thanks to Swift staff keeping everyone happy, to everyone who competed and supported and of course to the WhistlePig and Moët Hennessy team for putting the comp on.
We’ll be back with the result of the other heats in the coming days, for now here are the winning specs: