Matt Morrison of The Fife Arms in Braemar wins Nc’Nean Creations 2023

BarLifeUK has worked with Nc’nean on their Creations cocktail competition for two years now, and everything I have learned about the brand’s values by talking to the team and competitors leaves me with the impression that it is one of the most constructive competitions on the circuit.

Matt H and Matt M sitting in a tree (or on a barrel)

There are many reasons a brand might hold a cocktail competition and building advocacy is obviously high on the list, but I get the impression Nc’nean are genuinely striving to help bartenders learn to work in a more sustainable way. As a distillery they believe sustainability or lowering our environmental impact is something we should be doing for its own sake, not just to sell more bottles because ‘going green’ is on trend with certain consumers.

Every Nc’nean Creations competitor I have spoken to, including this year’s winner Matt Morrison, enthuses about the things they have learned during the competition and how they will put these new techniques or ideas into practice. Another recurring theme is the setting of the competition final, and how wonderful it is to experience a few days in Morven and the Highland in general, which seque-s us nicely into the news that the Nc’nean Creations grand final took place last month, and was won by Matt Morrison of The Fife Arms, Braemar.

I spoke to Matt about his experience, but before we hear from him, I asked Nc’nean ambassador Matthew Hastings how the final went, and if he would like to give any of the competitors a shout out or honorable mention. Being the lovely chap he is, he did, for all of them:

I couldn’t be prouder of everyone involved. Endlessly positive, wildly entertaining, and all brimming with the qualities that make the very best in our industry shine. The level of help and support coming from each of the competitors was astounding throughout; bar-backing, fixing ice, sharing equipment, open book on methods and technique… genuine comradery that highlights them not just as incredible bartenders, but incredible people too. And that of course says nothing of their individual talents, which are also numerous, and of the highest quality:

Giorgia – Commitment & unrivalled composure (and quite literally put her life on hold for this, thank you!)
Scott – An impossible juxtaposition of calmness & passion
Lewis – Procession & passion (with animated opinions on crisps)
Steve – Unguarded & unbelievably knowledgeable
Dylan – Charm, charisma & a natural story teller (with excellent sea shanties)
Sam – Pure creativity, capability & chaotic goodness
Matt – Sharp, calm & brave (serving a room temperature short in a final, double brave)
Siggi – Bright & the very embodiment of no-nonsense joy

I’m not one for mindless sycophancy, so I implore you to seek every one of these bartenders out and experience their stellar hospitality for yourselves. It’ll be worth the journey, however far you have to travel.”

Sam Boevey, who placed second.

Amy Stammers, Nc’nean’s visitor manager and chief judge on the day added: “It was a real pleasure to judge this competition, the standard and quality of cocktails was extremely high, and it is always one of the highlights of our working calendar when we get to taste these wonderful creations.

In the end, it comes down to the drink in your hand, but over the two rounds we had to give consideration to elements like entertainment, barman craft, and of course sustainability, to identify the best over all competitor, and that was very difficult. I learnt a lot from these contenders collectively about sustainability in the drink industry – most surprisingly, but perhaps it shouldn’t be, is how wasteful ice is!’

Interview with Nc’nean Creations 2023 Winner Matt Morrison

BLUK: Matt, many congratulations on winning Nc’nean Creations 2023. Can you describe what it was like taking part in the final?
MM: All the competitors met at Glasgow train station, and I instantly realised everyone was really sound and it was going to be a good trip. We got into a bus and started heading up but had to take a big detour up near Glen Coe because a car accident closed one of the roads. It was actually really good as we got to spend a bit of time all together in the bus having weird bartender chats, which was fantastic. Then we arrived at the accommodation we were staying at and had some chilli that was made for us, which was absolutely delicious. Then we headed into the first round of the competition.

BLUK: And how did round one go?
MM: This was the ‘fireside chat’ round. We went down to a beach and sat round a fire, it was a fantastic setting, absolutely beautiful. And we had to tell a story that was linked in some way to the West of Scotland, along with a cocktail which embodied the story. I went for a poem written by Robert Louis Stevenson, which talks about a folklore story about the Picts having heather ale, which was the most delicious drink and everyone loved it… and how the secret of how that ale was made remains to this day. For my drink, I decided to make my own version of the heather ale. I created a Braemar heather honey mead with apricots, and in there was also had a thyme saline solution, and I made some hawthorn bitters as well.

Giorgia signing the way of things to come…

BLUK: Presumably you ate lovely food and drank some lovely whisky that night. What did day two have in store for the competitors?
MM: We headed up to the distillery, which was absolutely fantastic, we had perfect weather for it. We did a full tour and saw the biomass engine, we did some tasting with their new make which was made with different types of yeast so we could see how that affected the base spirit. I’m a big whisky nerd so that was a really interesting session. Then we got into the second round of the competition, which was the sustainable cocktail that we presented in the heats.

BLUK: As you were watching the other competitors take their turn, did you see anyone who made you think ‘oh-oh, I’m in trouble’?
MM: Pretty much everyone. It was genuinely outstanding and I did not expect to win. One of the things I thought would be an advantage for me is that I wasn’t using any ice, but Lewis, who went before me, also didn’t use any. So I thought ‘agh, I’ve lost my advantage.’

BLUK: Why did you think not using ice would be an advantage, and did that mean your cocktail was un-chilled?
MM: Because the challenge was all about sustainability. You’ve got the power usage for freezing water, and water itself is such a valuable resource. When you are shaking a cocktail, you shake it then throw the ice away, it’s a bit of a waste. And yep, it was a room-temperature, espresso-style drink.

BLUK: So your prize involves helping Nc’nean select their next single cask release, how is that going to work?
MM: In November Matt Hastings is going to visit me with cask samples, we will taste them, talk about them, and see if we can come to a decision about which we think will be the best to bottle.

BLUK: Given your entire experience with Nc’Nean Creations, from creating an initial entry to competing in the final, what would you say to a bartender who is considering their own entry next year, is it worth the time and effort?
MM: 100%, even just going through to the heat stages you will learn a hell of a lot, just from watching the other bartenders. Sustainability is something that’s becoming more and more important in the bar trade, and doing a competition like this pushes you to me more creative within sustainability and will give you and edge as things continue to move in a more sustainable fashion. It’s also great to see how the other competitors tackle the same problems you’ve been set, you can get a lot of inspiration that way. And you get to work with such great liquid and a really interesting distillery and team.