There are several reasons why Max Warner was awarded Best International Brand Ambassador at last week’s Spirited Awards – the sheer passion, drive and creativity he puts into his role as Global Brand Ambassador for Chivas Regal are just a few. The standout one for us though is his generosity of spirit, namely in the way he nurtures all of those fortunate to work with him by aiming to put them firmly in the spotlight.

Take the recent Chivas Masters Cocktail Competition Global Final for example. He could have chosen to stage it in New York for a third year but took a risk and and chose to shine a light on Shanghai instead. Then there was the way he chose to structure the competition. Yes there was an overall winner but the success was shared by a team. Read about the competition here.

“Within Chivas as a brand we already had very definite values of brotherhood and success – it’s there in the original line ‘Live with Chivalry’,” he says when explaining the ethos of the Chivas Masters, “but it’s evolved in two ways: ‘Win the right way’ which means being successful by enriching the lives of others, as a team and not just as an individual, and ‘success tastes better shared’. This really appealed to me and is something I try to incorporate into what I do as a brand ambassador.”

We spoke to him about the competition and his choice of judges, the bold idea to stage the global finals in Shanghai and why working as a team is vital to success.

On the vision behind the Chivas Masters Cocktail Competition Global Final 2016…

Once I was talking to my grandmother about the competition and she said ‘so what?’
I thought if I can’t explain it to her I can’t explain it to anyone  – I needed a clear rationale. So I contacted 20 people who have a proven track record and are hugely respected in the industry; people who run the best bars in the world and who dare to do things differently. I asked each of them what was the most important thing about running a bar and running a bar team. I thought if at least a few of them responded then at least I’d have the basis for my programme. They all came back to me with their insights and the new format for the Chivas Masters was born.

Originally, I was thinking of a bar team in terms of bringing together bartenders from different cultures. 
After I’d asked the 20 industry professionals that all-important question I realised that the idea was all about the team – you don’t get anywhere without a team. Everyone needs to bounce ideas off people, everyone needs the support of a team who understand their vision and product. Being a great bartender is no different. So for the final in Shanghai it had to mean winning as a team – five brains instead of one. There are so many elements of hospitality to bring together in a drinking experience. With a team there’s the opportunity for each person to focus on one of those elements. Ultimately this can lead to creating the perfect bartender.

The Chivas Masters Global Finalists in Shanghai

On taking the Chivas Masters to Shanghai…

Choosing Shanghai for the global final was very important.
I didn’t want to go a city where another global cocktail competition had taken place before; for me it was important that we should go somewhere that we could tell a story. London or Scotland would have been obvious choices but we had enjoyed considerable success in Shanghai with Chivas back in the 1990s as it was a popular gift amongst business people. I’ve been travelling there for 12 years but in the last five years the bar scene has changed dramatically. There wasn’t an infrastructure before, back then it was only about the product, never about the hospitality. Now the bars in Shanghai have so much. The bars have got themes, experiences, bar programs and drinks that tie into a concept, all of these things were moving in the right direction and by staging the competition in Shanghai I believed I could help China get recognition whilst doing something for the brand and for Scotch whisky in general to keep the bartenders motivated there.

Shanghai is an amazingly vibrant city, but people just don’t know anything about it.
Neither did I before I went there but once you have your eyes get opened up, it’s such an incredible place. The cocktail scene is growing in Shanghai and Beijing. Companies like the Edition are going to be opening up hotels there so I wanted to help bring the wider bartending community together – I believe more people will go there over the next two or three years.

Social media is huge there and has increased the awareness of what bartenders are doing.
It has definitely given more visibility to the drinks and bars. One of the interviews I gave during the global final was being viewed live online by 530,000 people and got 1.2 million likes!

On choosing the judges – Chris Lowder, Dre Masso, Leo Robitschek and Naren Young:

I wanted to cover four key areas when I was assembling the judges: performance, creativity in drinks, hospitality and ownership. 
All four judges could have covered each of those subjects in their presentations. But as we fine tuned the idea it increasingly made sense as to which judge would be responsible for a particular area.

Chris Lowder (Four Seasons, Seoul) is a natural when it comes to performance.
He’s worked in New York and Asia. He’s been an actor, improv comedian and is basically just a fabulous game show host in disguise.

Dre Masso (Potato Head, Bali) is a great mentor and perfect to talk about creativity.
We’ve worked together before on projects since we first met in 1999. He’s fantastic at breaking down the spiel about bars and making everything more consumer friendly.

Leo Robitschek (The NoMad Hotel and Eleven Madison Park, New York) is a hospitality perfectionist.
I just have so much admiration for the theatre he brings to the process. His team take hospitality to realms no one else has ever done; they know what they’re doing, why they are doing it and still ask if there are better ways things can be done.

Naren Young (Caffe Dante, New York) is the anchor, he really knows what ownership is all about.
Simply because of the amount of bars he opened and the depth of knowledge he has. He’s also incrediably intuitive.

Max with (l-r) Chris Lowder, ‘The Beach Brothers’, Naren Young, Leo Robitschek and Dre Masso.

The Chivas Masters Global Final 2016

Part of the challenge was how do you put on a competition like this without making lots and lots of cocktails.
Yes, you can make a lovely drink with Chivas but it doesn’t demonstrate what kind of person you are. I wanted to see an equal balance of personal and leadership skills. This makes the Chivas Masters a very complex competition. Bartenders say its the hardest thing they’ve ever done. It puts a focus on looking after your customer before thinking about your drink.

The masterclasses were essential but I deliberately didn’t have them in place when we started.
I wanted to look at each of the 15 bartenders in their national finals to see what they were bringing to the global stage, because I knew what the end game was going to be, that they were going to be part of a team. That’s why the masterclasses could not be briefed in until I had assembled all the finalists.

There were many great moments during the global final and it wasn’t just about what the finalists did in front of the judges.
I really enjoyed noticing how much the bartenders supported each other from the beginning. It was very much about how they behaved throughout their time together.

There was a surprising highlight for the judges.
Once they had selected their top three, those particular bartenders became team leaders and had to put together a team each from the remaining 12 finalists. The judges found the process of observing them pick their teams fascinating. It was very considered and revealed a lot about the competitors and how they interpreted teamwork.

The Chivas Masters Global Final went even better than I could have hoped.
I knew if I got the right people in place we were going to get something interesting. When you don’t notice how well something is running, whether it’s a bar, restaurant or event it’s because there is so much going on behind the scenes. I’ve been to a lot of events and I’ve hosted a lot too, and I know it’s about having the right people in place.

The reason it worked so well is that it had a lot of experience behind it.
That’s why I felt really confident that I could go and do something like this in Shanghai.

One of the outstanding things was the passion and support I got from Masa Urushido (Global Winner 2014) and Josh Reynolds (Global Winner 2015).
They demonstrated what this programme means. I didn’t even have to brief them for the final because they instinctively knew what I wanted them to do. We’ve been on an incredible journey over the last two years and I’ve seen them both grow and develop.

During the final it didn’t sink in but since then I’ve had some really lovely messages.
Especially from the bartenders who weren’t in the winning team saying things like ‘I’m inspired to do things differently’. This means a lot to me because I wanted everyone walking away with a great experience, whether it’s for the brand or their careers.

On Alejandro Millán Ponce De León, Chivas Masters Cocktail Competition Winner 2016…

I’ll be getting to know our winner Alejandro in the coming months.
This is a very big thing for him. He’s from Mexico – not Mexico City but a little town just outside it. Now he will be representing his country over the next year. I wasn’t a judge but I totally agree with Chris, Leo, Naren and Dre’s decision. Alex has a very natural approach, there’s something in him that I see in our previous winners Masa and Josh. I can’t say exactly what it is but I think it’s a kind of humble confidence.

This is the first time a Latin American country has been represented at a big event.
We’ll be looking at how we promote Alex, but it might not be through cocktails, it could be through the whole idea of bartending and nurturing.

Alejandro Millán Ponce De León, Chivas Masters Cocktail Competition Winner 2016, with Max Warner

Alejandro Millán Ponce De León, Chivas Masters Cocktail Competition Winner 2016, with Max Warner

Alex had something special with his winning team, they gelled immediately.
In the final he created a signature drink that brought in his whole team. Each of them added an ingredient to represent their home country and he then got them involved in presenting it to the judges. Theirs was a real team.

In the future we will be looking at ways to enrich the lives of others and how bartenders can go beyond simply making great drinks.
How we can take ‘win the right way’ and ‘success tastes better shared’ and evolve them into this programme – hospitality, bars, leadership, nurturing a team and how they can do something in their community. Alex told me a story which solidified this in my mind. A young chap went into his bar with just the clothes on his back and asked Alex for help. Alex took him on, to help him and give him a chance to get back on his feet – we’ll be looking at ways we can encompass things like that into the programme.

I have one outstanding memory of the whole final.
Seeing Josh, last year’s winner, pass on the baton to Alex really energised me.

The future

I’ve just finished working on The Venture, our initiative for entrepreneurs who use business as a force for good. I caught up with Alejandro and his winning team as they hosted their pop up bar, The Beach Brothers for us at the Tales of the Cocktail. Next up I’ll be planning my wedding!

See more on The Chivas Masters Global Cocktail Competition 2016

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