Just when you thought there was nothing new, nothing different, nothing else worth playing for on the cocktail competition front, along comes Chivas Masters. Forget the fact that this is only the second year it’s been running, this is one contest with seriously big ideas.

Even the entry requirements set it apart from the rest. Consider this: each bartender has to show off their skills and demonstrate their knowledge making not one, not two but four cocktails, one inspired by each of four key eras in cocktail history: The Classic Age (1880-1920); The Post-War Boom (1945-1960); The Disco Years (1975-1990) and the Age of Revivalism (from 1990 to the present day). It’s a big ask, yes but when you’re talking about a brand built on heritage, pride and craftsmanship, high standards and pushing yourself to the max really counts.

From left to right: Kevin Song, Josh Reynolds, Sigrid Serv, Ondrej Hnilicka, Thodoris Pirillos, Jacob Shteyntsayg,
Tunny Grattidge, Steven Sünderhauf, Ryuichi Saitoh, Matthew Long

Speaking of max and high standards, the global finals took place in New York, where we spent four days with Max Warner, Chivas Global Brand Ambassador and the 12 fab finalists who beat off the competition in their respective countries. Let’s say this before we get started – not only do all of them know how to craft bloody good cocktails (we know, we’ve tasted them), they are some of the nicest people we’ve had the pleasure to hang out with. A big round of applause please for the huge talents of:

Kevin Song, China
Ondrej Hnilicka, Czech Republic
Sigrid Sarv, Dubai
Matthew Long, France
Steven Sünderhauf, Germany
Thodoris Pirillos, Greece
Tunny Grattidge, Hong Kong

Jacob Shteyntsayg, Israel
Ryuichi Saitoh, Japan
Stas Kireev, Russia

Josh Reynolds, UK
Dev Johnson, USA

So, why New York? Good question. The location is integral to the competition for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s where most people consider the classic cocktail was created, which more than justifies the choice in our book, but when you take into account the original Chivas 25 was launched in this great city in 1909 and just happens to be where the Chivas Regal legend was born, it couldn’t really be anywhere else.

The competition

As well as getting the bartenders to tease out the rich and fruity, lightly spiced blend of Chivas in cocktails based on the aforementioned eras, the comp was devised to kick all of the senses into gear. Taste, touch, sound, aroma, sight all came into play over the two action-packed days of challenges but first…

Thodoris, Dev, Steven and Kevin getting to grips with the quiz

Day one: Getting to know you

What better way to ease into the competition, engage the senses and discover the city that plays such an important role in Chivas’ history than a lighthearted quiz? The bartenders were split into two teams and allocated a native team leader (step forward Dev Johnson from Employee’s Only and Maxwell from Maison Premiere) and given three hours to photograph, hashtag and cross as many of the tasks off the given list as possible.

Discovering New York, Chivas style

The adventure kicked off in fine style with a helicopter ride. Excuse us but could there be a more spectacular introduction to a city than that? We think not. There were prizes up for grabs but the quiz served another purpose too. It was the perfect way for the bartenders to loosen up after their travels and build the cameraderie so essential in the bartending community. And from our vantage point, it clearly worked.

Then it was back to the NoMad hotel, our home for the next four days, for prizes (plastic ducks and mini bottles of Chivas seeing as you’re asking) before another feast for the senses, a specially prepared whisky matched dinner at three Michelin starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park. #winning.

Day two: Down to business

Inspiration from the carefully curated NoMad ‘market’

In keeping with the luxury we’d become already become accustomed to, the setting for the cocktail competition didn’t disappoint. We’re talking five-star lushness in the penthouse apartment of the stunning NoMad hotel. Each bartender was allocated their own bar for prep and had access to an impressive larder full of ingredients (when we say larder, read bespoke indoor market conceived to inspire a plethora of delicious cocktails).

Here come the judges: Ivy Mix, Micah Melton, Ago Perrone and Masa Urushido

The main bar was set up in the Study, the stage if you will. This was where the bartenders performed their rituals in front of the panel of esteemed judges: Ivy Mix, co-owner of Leyenda, New York; Ago Perrone, Director of Mixology, The Connaught, London; Micah Melton, Beverage Director, The Aviary, Chicago, and last year’s winner, Masa Urushido, Bar Manager, Saxon + Parole, New York.

Round one – Recreating the signature drinks

How thoughtful to get the bartenders limbered up and raring to go by asking them to recreate the drink that earned them their money-can’t-buy experience to New York in the first place. They were given 30 minutes to prep at their station, then had five minutes to present to the judges. We saw (and tasted) all kinds of clever cocktails inspired by the DNA of Chivas, all different and all very quaffable.

The finalists at work: from left to right,(top row): Ryuichi, Kevin, Ondrej, Dev; (second row):
Matthew, Tunny, Thodoris, Jacob; (bottom row): Stas, Sigrid, Steven, Josh

On the menu were signature cocktails featuring cloudberry jam, vanilla cream and Frangelico (Sigrid); Fernet Branca, Grand Marnier, honey water and apple juice (Tunny); Cherry Heering, pepper rose syrup and bergamot smoke (Jacob); yellow Chartreuse, cherry liqueur and Byrrh (Stas) and green tea liqueur, elderflower liqueur and lemon balm (Ryuichi). Dubonnet Rouge played a supporting role in the glass twice, mixed with agricole rum and gentian (Matthew) and pineapple syrup and sasparilla cordial (Josh).

Round two – The Classic Age (Touch)

Touch was replicated with lessons in ice and the effect it has when it comes in contact with the spirit in the glass. After a lesson from ice guru Micah Melton on how flavoured ice can dramatically alter a drink, both as it’s added to the glass and as it dilutes over time, the competitors were tasked with creating two cocktails: one in liquid form, the other for the ice that would go in it, thinking about how they would harmonise in the glass.

The NoMad Market was the source for ingredients and also a selection of ice moulds, ranging from solid cubes to dinky pearls. Judging on this round took place the next day (as good as the team at the NoMad were, even they couldn’t freeze the ice sufficiently in such a short time).

Lessons in ice carving, from left to right: the tools of the trade, crafted by Masa; Masa in action;
a competitor attempts to get their ice ball down to size

What they did do though was prepare some big boy blocks which came out for the second part of the challenge: carving an ice ball with specially created tools designed by last years winner Masa. For this they had to create an ice ball to sit comfortably inside a Chivas rocks glass, pour over the whisky then come up with a story and name for their serve.

Some of the bartenders had experience in shaping ice – Steven and Sigrid for instance, and Ruiyachi from Japan. For others like Thodoris and Josh though, this was their first time. No matter how au fait with this very precise art form they were, everyone was given exactly 10 minutes to get to grips with the tools and how to shape their balls (!), then it was game on. And even the novices came up trumps.

Round three – The Disco Years

Another cool experience, this time following a lesson in the art of making the piggy-tastic suckling pig confit on the menu at the NoMad, bartenders had to devise two cocktails – one of which had to be non-savoury – to pair with the top-selling dish. But they had to do it in a disco-stylee. Oh, and they had to use ingredients from a mystery box, just to make things a little more interesting…

Above: the mystery box; bottom row, from left to right: Dev, Matthew, and Josh get into disco mode,
special effects courtesy of Ondrej

Highlights included Matthew in a tight as you like T-shirt, Dev delivering his presentation in full Brooklyn, couldn’t-give-a-damn schtick, Josh donning Afro wig and psychedelic jacket and Ondrej accompanying his presentation with a spinning a mirror ball and 1970s soundtrack. Hey, you’ve got to love a bit of disco…

Day three: The challenges continue…

Round four – The Classic Age part two (Taste)

Time for taste to be put into the spotlight. This was where the ice challenge from the day before was presented to the judges and the finalists had to explain what ingredients they had chosen and how their ice would impact the flavour of their drink. The judges tasted the cocktails twice – once immediately after each presentation, the other time 10 minutes later. The transformations were truly stunning.

Some of the signature cocktails in focus

Fifth round – The Age of Revivalism (Sight)

Every challenge had been carefully devised as an investment in the future careers of the participating bartenders. And this one was no exception. After a talk from Ago Perrone on the importance

Doron Gild at work

of drinks presentation in the bar, top photographer Doron Gild was on hand to give the bartenders tips on how to make their drinks ‘pop’ in photographs. He should know – he’s just finished the photography for Jim Meehan’s new book and has worked on campaigns for all the major players including Pernod Ricard and Dunhill.

How often does a bartender get a chance to direct a photo shoot with a photographer of this ilk? Not only did this challenge get them to think about the aesthetics of their drinks but they had to communicate their vision as well. They had 30 minutes to prepare, then 15 minutes on set with Doron. With the background already decided for all the competitors, it was up to each of them to use props, garnishes and their vivid imaginations to bring their drinks to life in the photograph.

The finished picture along with the drink was presented blind to the judges, who scored this round based on the look and taste of the drink alone. Fascinating stuff.

Sixth round – The Post-War Boom (Sound)

The last challenge was more of a party. But not for the bartenders, once again, they had to work hard for their votes. This time they were vying for the love of 60 or so specially invited guests who were called on to judge for their three favourite cocktails based on the engagement from each bartender. The taste of the drinks was important too but it was the patter that really counted here, as it does on any given night behind and in front of the bar.

Thodoris, Ryuichi, Steven and Matthew at work behind their respective bars

First, Ivy Mix gave a presentation on how to batch cocktails for a crowd, giving invaluable tips on what works, what doesn’t and why. Next the contestants had to prep a punch to serve at the party later and had to style up and name their work stations as a bar. Then it was party time. And the buzz in the room was infectious.

Days three and four: New Orleans baby!

Then it was done, the two days of tough but carefully conceived challenges were over. Before the winner was announced we were off to New Orleans to Tales of the Cocktails for the bartenders to take part in one of the greatest cocktail events in the world – the birthplace of many classic cocktails including the Sazerac, Grasshopper, Hurricane and Brandy Milk Punch.

Max Warner, Masa Urushido, Josh Reynolds, Ago Perrone and Giovanni Martinez

As cliched as it sounds, all 12 were winners – the trip, the experiences, the knowledge gained, the friendships formed and alliances made will be with them forever.

In the end though, Josh Reynolds from Hawksmoor Spitalfields in London took the top prize and no one could quibble about the decision. He was consistent throughout, showed depth of knowledge of and respect for the brand, brought just the right level of humour to the party but knew when to play it straight and considered every last detail of his presentations. Plus he makes mighty fine cocktails to boot.

A new Chivas Master is born (and we’re still in New Orleans for another two days to help him celebrate!)

Congratulations Josh and also to his fellow 11 competitors.

And also to the ever-stylish Max Warner, always a winner in our book.

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