Bottoms up at the mile-high cocktail contest

Contenders for the Diageo World Class Bartender contest had an added challenge this year: to shake up a drink that still tasted good in mid-air. Samuel Muston joined them on board.

They usually call Diageo's cocktail contest the  World Class UK Bartender Award, but this year they might just have well called it the Transatlantic Bartender of the Year Award.

For on the sunny day in May when the contest is taking place, the mixologists, the judges, and we journalistic hangers-on, are all in the air at 40,000 feet, tearing through the blue Atlantic sky on a 747 bound for New York.

It is an unusual competition, taking place on two transatlantic flights and in the first-class lounge at Heathrow. The object: to create the perfect pre- and in-flight cocktails for British Airways passengers and take the crown as the UK’s best mixologist.

The eccentricity of it all is at the forefront of my mind as I enter the judging arena, the galley on the top deck of the plane. Sharing the deck with me are four judges, scorecards at the ready; a cameraman carrying a light that would melt icing; and our contender, Gareth Evans, the bar manager at London’s Social Eating House. Gareth’s hands shake gently like leaves in a breeze.

And well those hands might shudder, for not only is he being judged by four of the best drink-slingers in the world, including Erik Lorincz, a former winner and now to be found at the Savoy’s American Bar, but, half an hour earlier, he has had all his alcohol confiscated by an eagle-browed security lady called Erica at Heathrow. He’d put them in the wrong volume bottles.

This setback means that he has had to adapt hastily his offering for the “Cocktail at Altitude” round. His drink is called Security Measures and he serves up the Tanqueray No. Ten-based drink on a tray covered by a “flight rules” sheet. The judges sip, draw air through the clear liquor to get its full punch, then eyes go down to scorecards. They look like bingo players. I taste and nod – a perky drink.

Of the six areas the contenders are judged on – technique, presentation, creativity,expression of spirit, taste, and brand knowledge (that’s familiarity with Diageo’s posh Reserve brands, of which there are many) – he’s certainly aced the first three. But maybe that should be expected. He is one of the four remaining contestants in the UK leg of Diageo’s search to find the best bartender in the world.

“At this level in the competition it is expected the drinks will taste great; it is more about the bartenders coping with limited glassware, time and resources on a plane,” comments James Hill, a judge and World Class’s brand ambassador.

Indeed, three hours previously, in the first-class lounge at Heathrow, there were 10 contestants. Lined up against one wall, they announce themselves as coming from Edinburgh and Birmingham, London and Leeds, and pretty much everywhere in between.

All seem to be clothed in the mixologist dress of the moment, which to my eyes makes them look like bank clerks in a cowboy film – thin ties, waistcoats and shirtsleeves secured high with armlets. Well, all, that is, except Lucy Horncastle, the only woman of the group. “It can seem a bit like a boys’ club,” she says. “But sometimes, being the only woman works to your advantage; people remember you. And anyway, I’m just as good as anyone else here.”

There does at times seem to be an X Factor element to proceedings. The pregnant pauses of the judges (“Can contestants [pause] come to the judging area”) don’t help. But, in fact, it’s quite clubbable: the contenders carry each other’s glasses, smile at one another, tap each other on the arm, and nod in support. This is competition in the cricket rather than football mould. No one gets bitten.

James Fowler, a competitor from The Library, Bournemouth, explains: “It’s not just the judges who make you nervous; it’s also the knowledge that you’re trying to show off to your peers – the best people in the business”.

By the time we are in the sky, though, we have said goodbye to six competitors. And it’s soon time for the second in-flight challenge: a cocktail based around  Zacapa XO rum.

There is a problem, though. We have been in the air now for four hours. We’re dehydrated and the pressure and altitude have had a deleterious effect on everyone’s taste buds.

Kevin Griffin, a bonhomous Scotsman from the Tigerlily bar in Edinburgh, is wise to it, though: “The lack of oxygen in the air means sugar and salt become more palatable but citrus fruits [become] much sharper and less palatable – so I’ve designed my drink around that knowledge.” His drink is dark and rich, with a chocolate, pimientos and walnut flavour. He serves it with coffee and a chocolate disc. It seems to awaken each dozing taste bud it encounters – a cracker.

After that, I feel that a further snifter would be unwise. Still, I see through the thin cocktail-induced haze that there are two front-runners: Griffin and Evans. I know because I’ve written their names extra-large in my notebook as we touch down at JFK. And sure enough, Evans goes on to win the title Diageo World Class UK Bartender.

The next stop for him, a drinks venue even more exclusive than a BA Club World 747: a privately charted ocean-going liner in the Mediterranean, where he will be battling it out against the world’s best bartenders for the ultimate crown. As Evans said , “It’s the ticket everyone wants.” Quite.

Security Measures

By Gareth Evans, Executive Bar Manager at Social Eating House

35ml Tanqueray No. TEN
12.5ml apricot brandy
10ml Fino Cherry infused with whole lemons
10ml pickle brine
20ml lemon juice

METHOD: Put all ingredients into a cocktail shaker, shake and strain. Serve in a champagne glass a twist of lemon.

High Spirit

By Gareth Evans

40ml Zapaca XO
20ml Dry Vermouth
10ml Apricot Brandy
10 Jagermeister

METHOD: Stir all the ingredients and strain over ice. Serve in a tumbler garnished with orange zest and dark chocolate.

Living the Dream

By Gareth Evans

40ml Johnnie Walker Blue Label
20ml De Kypor XO Cherry Brandy
10ml VIP Yellow Chartreuse
Dash of Fernet Branca

METHOD: Stir ingredients and strain. Serve with orange zest.

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