Sahara Bar – Cocktail Comp Assassins

BarLifeUK cover a lot of cocktail competitions, and over the last few months have seen bartenders from Reading’s Sahara bar winning way more than their fair share. We popped along for a beer and a chat to find out why this is.

Ash on pumpkin duty

BLUK: So, tell us who you are and what you have won recently.

Dan: I’m Dan Bovey, GM at Sahara, and I recently won a Bacardi Legacy heat, the Chambord Rendezvous, the Bacardi Oakheart comp and the Grand Marnier/Remy comp.

Dean: I’m Dean MacGregor, assistant manager, and I won the Jack Daniel’s birthday comp in Lynchburg.

Ash: I’m Ash Bovey, bartender at Sahara, and I came second in the Licor 43 comp and got an honourable mention at the CASK roadshow.

BLUK: Why have Sahara bartenders been so successful in competitions recently?

Dan:  Everyone’s passionate; there’s not a big scene in Reading so as a result, when someone starts working at Sahara they tend to stay a long time, most people been there 2 – 3 years.

Comps are important as it keeps them interested, gets them to meet new people, gets their name out there as a bartender in case they want to move on and they get to win things. As GM I keep an eye out for comps coming up and make sure everyone knows about them.

We also work as a team to try cocktails and give feedback. Each bartender also works with the Educated Drinkers (a self-run group that holds tastings and masterclasses for consumers and local bartenders – ED) in the bar to host a training session with them each month which helps raise their confidence.

Dean:  Each month the members of the ED get to come along and learn about a section of the spirit industry Tiki, Bitters etc, and whoever chairs it does the research and presents it. We also encourage brand people to come down here, hassle them till they do. We also run cocktail comps for local bars once or twice a month.

BLUK: What is your technique for coming up with competition drinks? Do you have any guidance for other bars?

Dan: Always check the rules. Think about what they are looking for in the comp, if it is local you can go crazy whereas a national comp, where the drink has to be easily replicated use less or no homemade ingredients. Also don’t make it too complicated if it is for a national brand – Use a few ingredients done really well.

BLUK: How do you start with the recipe?

Dan: We all do it a bit differently. I tend to taste the base spirit and then work out what happens from there. As there tends to be 6 or so of us working on cocktails, we try to be different and look at the drink differently, come up with different concepts which I think helps us be original. I like to look at the history and link it in with that.

Ash: I tend to try to find a theme, what I want it to taste like, build up a story around that and find flavours that fit in with the story.

Dean: I try the spirit and take the parts of the spirit I like and take it from there.

BLUK: Which comp would you most like to win?

Ash: World Class

Dan: It is the opportunity over the prize. Through World Class… the amount of people you would meet, networking for the future is key.

Dean: You have the comps you do for the prize and then the comps you do for the exposure and setting you up for the future, for us they are the most important both personally and for the bar.

BLUK: You have all worked here a long time, as opposed to a lot of bartenders who after a couple of years look to move into brand ambassador roles. Why is this?

Dan: Making drinks is the fun bit.

Dean: Some brand ambassadors come down here do their schpiel, but have no idea how to bartend but others bring out their kit and get into it. That’s how it should be.

Dan – I would like to do brand ambassadoring, but on the side of bartending here as well; I couldn’t do it full time. I could never rep either. Because Sahara is independent and not in London we can do want we want here and that is a big reason people stay here.

BLUK: Is there anything you’d like to see changed in comps?

Dan: The ones I don’t like are the token-based ones (where the audience give tokens to their favourite bartenderED), as I think they are based on a popularity contest however the Grand Marnier Grand Bal worked really well.

BLUK: How about peer judging?

Dan: It works well if it is a national comp when people don’t know each other –  when it is done locally you can get people voting for friends or bar colleagues as opposed to for the best drinks. Chartreus just did one in Brighton that worked well.

Ash: When I judged the Jack Daniel’s comp, I was worried I was going to be biased towards you guys (the other Sahara bartenders competed in that heat – ED) but I think in the end I was harsher, fair but harsh, but strangely you still ended up coming first and second across the judges!

Dan: Dean did have a pretty good drink too though! Mine was crazy…

BLUK: Dan, when you did your presentation at the Legacy Bristol heat, Shervene (Bacardi Brand Ambassador) almost cried, she welled up with that quote you used at the end. That patter and delivery was probably the best I have seen. How did you come up with it?

Dan: For Legacy I know exactly what they are looking for, as it is the second year I’ve done it. The first year I did it wrong – I went a lot into the history of the individual ingredients and of Bacardi, when with Legacy they very much want you to give them your Legacy, your story why your cocktail is going to have its own story, that’s what I tried to do.

I tried to talk about the flavours of the drink rather than the history of the brand. When Sam and Mark went on first their chats were brilliant, and I think they would have aced a Bacardi comp but because it’s the Legacy comp it’s 5 minutes of talking about something that is completely irrelevant of what you are making.

BLUK: So when you were practicing making the drink and giving it to people to try, did you ever do the whole presentation as well?

Dan: Last year I did, this year I didn’t. I just wrote down my key points in a notebook then wrote it out a few times till it was how I wanted it to flow. Last year I had read it to many times, it got to sound like a speech so I tried not to do that this time, I tried to learn my key points and know roughly where I wanted them and then let it flow.

BLUK: You are the only great bar in a fairly small town – what advice would you give to bars in a similar situation?

Ash: Keep at it, push for everything.

Dan: Just because you’re one of the best bars in your area doesn’t mean you can stop learning. We are always doing training sessions, we are always trying to teach each other new things.

We are always doing training sessions but we don’t keep them to ourselves we always try to lift other bars in the area as well. We always work closely with Mix Bar. We are always trying to raise other bars in the area.