Question: What do you get when you take 16 of the freshest, most forward-thinking bartenders in the country, put them in a room and ask them to showcase their creativity in two drinks?
Answer: The second year of the eagerly awaited UK and Ireland leg of the Bombay Sapphire World’s Most Imaginative Bartender competition.
We had an inkling that the standard of this contest was going to be high, we’d sat through the difficult selection process two weeks before. But that was the warm-up – the amuse bouche if you will. Now with our palates primed and our appetites whetted we were moving on to the meaty part – the stage where the colourful creations we’d read about on paper would be brought to life.
On your marks…
As you might expect from Bombay Sapphire, a brand that prides itself on its Imagination Distilled ethos, original thinking is paramount in everything it says and does. That’s why regulations in its World’s Most Imaginative Bartender contest are kept to a minimum. The only real stipulation was that each contestant had to devise two drinks: one reimagined gin and tonic to be served in the iconic balloon glass; the other an original signature serve using Bombay Sapphire Gin.
Which goes to explain why this prestigious competition attracts those who take their bar tending careers extremely seriously. “I don’t enter many competitions,” explained Iain Griffiths of White Lyan when asked why this particular challenge resonated with him. “But the fact that we’re positively encouraged to push our thinking as far as we can really appeals.”
There was certainly plenty to get our drinks visionaries creative juices flowing. They could take the ten carefully chosen botanicals as their inspiration; zone in on the unique vapour-infusion process which marries said botanicals with the gin; focus on the iconic sapphire blue bottle; go down the passage to India route or throw their own interpretation into the mix. Like we said, imagination was the name of the game.
Cool enough to echo the sentiment of the contest yet cosy enough to put the semi-finalists at ease The Library at Shoreditch House provided the perfect backdrop for the day’s event. And just in case anyone was in any doubt why we were assembled in it, the chic space was given the Bombay Sapphire treatment – think tableaux of blue-tinted Martinis glasses lining the surfaces, arty displays of the ten botanicals present in Bombay Sapphire gin (including juniper from Tuscany, lemon peel from Murcia and liquorice from China). There were also flashes of the distinctive jewel-like blue bottle lighting up the room from everywhere you looked.
There was a bar but that was reserved for the Bombay Sapphire Ultimate Gin and Tonics that would be served to guests later in the evening. In the meantime, the competitors took their place behind a hefty table positioned to the rear of the room. At one end sat Simon Rogan, the hottest name in culinary wizardry in the UK and Raj Nagra, Bombay Sapphire Global Brand Ambassador; at the other, Joe Wild, last year’s UK and Ireland winner and ranked third in the global competition. Overseeing the proceedings and a vision clad in signature blue (Pantone refs 873 and 295) was Sean Ware, Bombay Sapphire UK and Ireland Brand Ambassador.
If you think bartending is just a case of throwing a few ingredients together, think again. At this level and for this particular contest the semi-finalists showed they possessed precision required of a surgeon, the knowledge of ingredients acquainted with a top chef, the eye of an artist and the performance of a seasoned actor. And they each dazzled and delighted our judges in turn.
The semi-finalists at work; top, left-right: Luca Corradini, The American Bar at The Savoy; George E. Fellows, Alvinos; Lee Hyde, Oskar’s Bar at Dabbous; Jon Hughes, Bramble. Second column, left-right: Garreth Canny, Giant Robot; Julian DeCraene, London Cocktail Club; Simone de Luca, High Road House; Richard Woods, Duck & Waffle
That’s the tonic
We witnessed as new, totally awesome Bombay Sapphire gin and tonics were proffered in all manner of clever, confident and decidedly moreish guises. From Lee Hyde’s ‘Bombay, Samphire and Tonic’, with its samphire and lemon grass ‘shubbery’ and aroma of the coastline ‘mist’ served from a table-top fountain in the manner of a punch bowl that continually recycles the drink, to Katrin Tillard’s deliciously refreshing ‘King’s Love Apple’, made with freshly-muddled tomatoes, basil and Pouilly Fume wine. “I wanted to make a lighter, fresher version of a Bloody Mary that can be enjoyed at any time of day,” she said of her drink. “Plus for me, all ten botanicals in Bombay Sapphire work really well with tomatoes, so using them as the base for my drink made good sense.”
Fraser Barrett from LA Group in Glasgow went foraging in Loch Lomond and Galloway for his ingredients. The result? The clean, green ‘Forager’s Tonic’, made with wild sorrel, spruce needles and fresh pear juice together with pear tonic syrup charged with carbon dioxide. “The sorrel adds a grassy crispness to the recipe,” explained Barrett soon after presenting his cocktails. “I’m inspired by locally sourced ingredients which is why I made a feature of them in the competition.”
Inspired by what Her Majesty would ask for if she visited The American Bar at The Savoy where he works, Luca Corradini dreamed up the ‘Queen’s Tonic’, a right royal mix calling on Bombay Sapphire, homemade Genepi, lime and ivy cordial and blackcurrant conserve infused with chocolate mole. In it he added three drops of Buckingham Palace essence, an original, slightly cheeky infusion made by imparting a handful of grass picked from Buckingham Palace, with bridle leather and an ivy leaf together with spices. His rationale? “I wanted something that would remind her of her country, her palace, her London – a gin and tonic that would help her to relax from her stressful life.” Who could argue with that?
Foodie expressions featured highly too. Take Richard Woods’ deceptively simple ‘English Garden Gin & Tonic’ for instance. With its invigorating, savoury mix of garden peas, petit pois, chicory and mint compressed Bombay Sapphire and added tonic, it definitely captured the spirit of quintessentially English summers in a glass. “When I was growing up minted peas were a real delight at meal times, so I used them as the basis for my gin and tonic – the aroma reminds me of warm summer evenings eating al fresco,” he said. Gareth Canny from Giant Robot looked to India to spur his imagination: “I envisaged the British Raj pre-1947. My aim was to capture something that had historical roots but challenged contemporary palates.” His ‘Grand Bombay Hotel’ with its imaginative ‘starter’, ‘main’ and ‘lager’ all made with Bombay Sapphire Gin was an homage to the Jalfrezis found a little closer to home in nearby Brick Lane.
The mark of distinction – the signature serves
The signature drinks were equally inventive. In fact, there wasn’t a dud in the house. Not sure whether to have cheese, chocolate or a punchy digestif to round off your meal? Richard Woods’ Blue Cheese and Chocolate Martini combined all three. In the wrong hands his decision to blend white, milk and dark chocolate liqueurs with sugar syrup for good measure with blue cheese sous vide Bombay Sapphire could have been a disaster. But it was a triumph with each of the soft, creamy layers subtly revealing their reason for being in the glass.
Above: a few of the imaginative signature serves
Jon Hughes was influenced by the Mediterranean botanicals present in Bombay Sapphire, choosing to fat wash the gin in olive oil before combining it with wine, acacia honey and a dash of salt solution which he gently stirred with sprigs of rosemary and thyme, “I wanted to add a rich, savoury element to a Martini-style drink and fat-washing Bombay Sapphire produces a smooth mouthfeel which I like, with the herbs complimenting the botanicals,” he explained.
Alan Cartolano from Oskar’s Bar at Dabbous chose to fat-wash Bombay Sapphire in olive oil too, using his to make a sophisticated version of the Dirty Martini. In it he stirred an infusion of Sichuan pepper and saline solution, then poured the drink into small ceramic dishes garnished with a black olive. “Working in a restaurant I see more plates than glasses on the tables which inspired me to create a sharing drink served in bowls.”
Other highlights included the ‘Supercalamagoozlumexpialidocious’ from George E. Fellows made with hopped grapefruit cordial, Benedictine, egg white and a basil tincture; ‘Love, Honour and Oh Bombay!’, from Troels Knudsen at MASH and Matt Fairhurst’s concoction calling on the judges to draw Tarot cards to explain the reasoning behind the ingredients used in his blue cocktail.
16 become 5
Our venerable judges certainly had their work cut out to choose from that little lot but somehow they managed to trim the numbers down from 16 to five. “I was totally blown away by the quality of all the cocktails I tasted,” said Simon Rogan, a man renowned for his finely tuned palate but here judging cocktails for the first time. “I’ll be totally honest, I was expecting good things but wasn’t prepared for such creativity from the contestants – it’s been an enjoyable but really difficult competition to judge,” he continued. “What a great way to spend an afternoon!”
The five that got the nod to go through to the final were:
Luca Corradini – The American Bar at The Savoy
Lee Hyde – Oskar’s Bar at Dabbous
Jon Hughes – Bramble
Richard Woods – Duck & Waffle
George E. Fellows – Popolo
Cue a flurry of activity where those who made the cut headed off to Spitalfields or Borough Markets – failing that any bar they knew with a friendly face behind it to source ingredients for their last show stopping cocktail which was to be a unique creation inspired by the countries from which Bombay Sapphire sources its 10 botanicals. Meanwhile, Sam Carter whisked the 11 who didn’t get through off for a spot of bowling and a bite to eat at All Star Lanes. The rest of us settled down for Bombay Sapphire Ultimate Gin and Tonics ahead of…
…The final countdown
Five ace competitors with just one cocktail between them and the first prize – it was never going to be easy. We witnessed wonderfully inventive libations inspired by English Afternoon Teas and Martinis (Luca Corradini); Chinese weddings (Lee Hyde); royal bounties in honour of friends and repayment of debts (Richard Woods); ‘my people of China’ (Jon Hughes) and the flavours of Italy (George E. Fellows). They all pulled out all the stops to impress but who had the edge? Honestly, we couldn’t say – it was far too close to call.
“London is a mecca of cocktails in so many ways and the imagination shown in terms of storytelling, garnishes and creations has blown me away,” began Raj Nagra building up to announcing the overall winner of this exciting, truly inspirational event. “I’m so proud to see so much finesse and style at this stage of the competition – it’s been a great showcase for the understanding and appreciation of gin,” Nagra continued. Simon Rogan agreed. “It’s been tough and the standard throughout has been extremely high, consequently the margins between all five finalists was very small.” That said, there could only be one winner. Drum roll please…
And the winner is…
Let’s hear it for Richard Woods from Duck & Waffle. “His cocktails were absolutely superb,” said Simon Rogan who was justifiably impressed by the culinary approach to Woods’ drinks. “His Blue Cheese and Chocolate Martini really stood out for me – it’s a combination I’ve been really interested in and the way he made them work together in a cocktail was very innovative. That said, his gin and tonic was also very original and well-balanced – he has a great approach to fusing cocktails with food.”
So, more than ten hours after arriving as a hopeful, Richard Woods was leaving as the winner of the UK and Ireland World’s Most Imaginative Bartender.
“I’m ecstatic but did I think I would win? No!” said Woods looking a little shell-shocked immediately after the announcement was made. “It was one of the toughest, most nerve-wracking competitions I’ve ever participated in. I knew I had to pull something different out of the bag to live up to the name of the competition but even so, I personally wouldn’t have picked myself out as the winner…”
The fact he’d presented two variations of his drink – Bombay Sapphire, Cynar, aromatised wine and tonic syrup – one served over a citrus ice made with yuzu, coriander and lemon peel, the other poured over ice flavoured with bitter almond, cassia bark and tonka beans, each paired with its own bitters, gives you some idea why he scooped the top prize. Add the theatre of the second serve presented inside a box smoked with cassia bark on a bed of dry ice and you’ll appreciate why he’s earned himself a coveted place in the Global Final taking place in London in June.
In the meantime, his prize is a one week residency at one of London’s hotspots, the fabulous Jub Jub upstairs at award-winning Callooh Callay. For more details of Richard’s pop-up bar at Callooh Callay, check in for details.
To see the competitors hard at work, watch the video of the action here:
*Huge congratulations to all 16 semi-finalists:
Fraser Barrett – LA Group, Glasgow
Garreth Canny – Giant Robot, London
Alan Cartolano – Oskar’s Bar (Dabbous), London
Luca Corradini – American Bar, The Savoy, London
Julian Decraene – London Cocktail Club Shaftesbury Avenue, London
Simone de Luca – High Road House, Soho House Group
Matt Fairhurst – Callooh Callay, London
George E. Fellows – Alvinos, Newcastle
Iain Griffiths – White Lyan, London
Jon Hughes – Bramble, Edinburgh
Lee Hyde – Oskar’s Bar (Dabbous), London
Kevin Kennedy – Hotel Westport, County Mayo
Troels Knudsen – MASH, London
Jumbles St. Pierre – LAB, London
Karin Tillard – London Cocktail Club Goodge Street, London
Richard Woods – Duck & Waffle, London