All photography: Owen Billcliffe
As bonkers as it sounds, there was a time when professional footballers would have a pint and a fag before a match and get paid £100 a week or so for their work on the pitch. True dat. Fast forward 30 years and it’s a whole different ball game (pardon the pun). There’s an understanding that in order to be a first-class player, they need to take the business of their health and the game seriously. That’s when they can command the big bucks and have a long and fruitful career.
It’s a bit like that for bartenders. (Bear with us on this one). Those who entered cocktail comps around a decade ago were lucky if they got a cheque or a flight for their troubles. Nowadays, yes there’s the travel to all manner of exotic locations but the best competitions also come with character-building, mind expanding, career enhancing opportunities attached. To draw in the big guns, intelligent, thoughtfully conceived ways to engage, inform, inspire and educate the creme de la creme of global bartending talent comes top of the list.
Compass Box Whisky Co certainly received the memo on this front. With its non-conformist beliefs – think punk but politely so – they had no trouble getting top-tier bartending talent to enter The Circle (“I don’t like to call it a competition, that means there are rules” says founder and whiskymaker John Glaser). Hardly surprising given the core beliefs of the company: “we make whisky for the adventurous”, “break the rules,” “please drink creatively,” and “it’s not our whisky, it’s yours”; it’s a calling card for creative thinkers who relish the thought of doing things differently. Not for doing things differently sake we’d like to add but because, let’s face it, there’s always room for something, well, different.
The class of 2018, L-R: Rosey Mitchell, Max Venning, Baptiste Etcheverry, Adriano Marcellino, Charlotte Pederson, Meredith Barry and John Glaser
Time to enter The Circle:
The mission? To create a blend and use it to make a Highball that a non-Scotch drinker will love
Day one: Getting to know you
(Location: Compass Box blending room, Chiswick)
It was a three-dayer – well, two and a bit really. The first was a wonderfully intimate getting-to-know-you dinner in the Compass Box blending room – heaven! What better way to get your head around a brand than to sit around a table with its creator and a few of the team, surrounded by the blends and bottles they’ve created over the past 18 years? One of the highlights (apart from the food and the company of course) was that John had asked the team at Hedonism Wines to pick out a wine from each of the five countries represented in The Circle. To keep it interesting, we had to have a go at tasting each one blind. It helped that Max Venning and Rosey Mitchell from Three Sheets in London and flying the flag for the UK were repped with a whisky (Compass Box of course), which left an uber cool selection from the US, for Meredith Barry from Vol 39 in Chicago; Spain, for Baptiste Etcheverry, from Fairmont Rey Juan Carlos in Barcelona; Argentina, for Adriano Marcellino, BrukBar in Buenos Aires, and France for Charlotte Pederson from Little Red Door in Paris to be tasted and enjoyed. Huzzah!
Day two: Sensory evaluation, creating a blend and presentation of the signature serve
(Locations: Bourne & Hollingsworth Buildings; CitizenM, Shoreditch)
The following day began with a sensory assessment session with Compass Box whiskymaker Jill Boyd. Forget any notion of “are you picking up notes of unicorn tears?” or anything crazy like that, Compass Box isn’t about rules remember, and that applies to every step of the production process. So here, sitting around a cosy country cottage type wooden table upstairs at Bourne & Hollingsworth Buildings, the bartenders were encouraged to use their own words to build their personal aroma vocabulary.
Compass Box whiskymaker Jill Boyd
Taste came next. More specifically, familiarising their palates with the five specific blends they’d be working with to create their whisky: Invergordon Grain 1997 (American oak); Benrines Malt 2005 (sherry cask); French oak blended (American oak); Clynelish Malt 2005 (American oak) and Laphroaig 2005 (American oak). Then a quick test was thrown in to check to see if the bartenders tastebuds were firing on all cylinders – they had to recreate a secret blend that John and Jill had dreamed up specially for the occasion. In 30 minutes. #Nopressureatall.
Coming in scarily close to the J&J creation (but bang on what John said he should have done. Result!) Adriano took this one, gaining well earned bonus points to add to his overall score. By this stage the bartenders had truly familiarised themselves with the drams and had an hour to play at being blender. Cue serious faces, lots of working out of percentages – what seems like a teeny pipette can go a long way to mess up or enhance the blend – and deep thought as to how their creations would work in a Highball.
The competitors working on their blends
One last task for the day, their first presentation; busting out their bartending moves with their Signature Serve. Even a brand with no rules had a few things that the competitors had to adhere to. Nothing to restrict their creativity of course, mostly that the serve had to contain at least one Compass Box Signature range or Great King Street expression. Not exactly a hardship given the gems in the portfolio.
Unusually, the competitors had to mark each other here, backed up by an independent panel to make sure everything was kushti. Time for us to earn our keep: joining us in the judging seat at CitizenM in Shoreditch were Grant Neave from Trailer Happiness and Thomas Solberg from London’s favourite whisky bar, Black Rock. On the menu? Everything from light, bright and refreshing, simple styles through to richer, deeper, more contemplative Old-Fashioneds – all inspired by the bar and city the bartenders were representing.
Day three: Moodboards, Highballs and a new Compass Box whisky blender is born
(Locations: TT Liquor, Box Park Shoreditch; Black Axe Mangal; CitizenM, Tower Bridge)
Morning, part one: creating a mood board to illustrate the inspiration and direction of their whisky blend and Highball; part two: tweaking the recipe for their drinks.
Charlotte Pederson presenting her Highball to the judges
Afternoon: Ding, dong – presentation time! Enter Compass Box founder John Glaser; Ryan Chetiyawardana aka Mr Lyan, head honcho at Dandelyan, Super Lyan and Cub; Matt Whiley aka Talented Mr Fox of Scout; Ivan Dixon of Enotria & Coe, and us. Finally, the three components of the competition were brought together – the people, their specially created blends and their drink.
The good news is, we judges had a mighty old afternoon, listening to stories, tasting new blends and sipping on a rather fine selection of Highballs. It went rather well for the competitors too – all six were relaxed, inspiring and passionate about their creations. Which made judging extremely enjoyable. Adriano gave us a lesson in time “Whisky can stop time when we stop to savour and enjoy it, or fly by when we share it with friends,” he said as he presented his pear and vanilla based Highball. He also gave us a glimpse of things to come, predicting that the future of Highballs will be Scotch and tonic, rather than soda. Take note.
Signature serves, L-R: Rosey Mitchell; Charlotte Pederson; Max Venning
Baptiste went floral, zoning in on his two favourite ingredients: rose and elderflower which he blended in his pretty La Vie En Rose Highball, served with a rose scented macaron and its namesake on the side. Charlotte drilled into what she believes the spirit of Compass Box is all about – exploration, while making their blends relatable. She combined both aspects in her Highball, The Traveller, featuring all French ingredients lengthened with ginger ale and garnished with a fat sprig of thyme.
Max spoke about sustainability in whisky farming, calling his blend The Dairy. The flavour profile of it followed his brief to a T – rich, buttery and big on flavour, it was used to good effect in his Highball, lengthened with a soda that was based on the taste of a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer (but actually contained coffee!)
Signature serves, L-R: Meredith Barry; Baptiste Etcheverry
Sexuality, diversity and gender play threaded through Meredith’s presentation and mood board. How did it translate in her drink? Like Compass Box, by breaking down stereotypes. Using water that she’d brought with her from Chicago and adding fresh coconut water to soften the harshness of the carbonation from the SodaStream, she added tea syrup to the mix.
Rosey spoke about the many ways whisky can talk to you: “it can tell you things and remind you of things,” she said. “I approached the brief by asking: how can I get my mum to drink whisky?” Her answer? By making a cocktail combining fermented peach and Champagne yeast, resulting in a deliciously floral drink, which definitely would have a universal appeal.
Presentations done, followed by dinner at Black Axe Mangal, it was over to CitizenM for p.a.r.t.y and announcements via a film highlighting the journey the six bartenders had undertaken during the past couple of days. It ended with one name on the screen: Rosey Mitchell, the person who will be creating a new Compass Box blend along with John Glaser.
“I don’t usually enter competitions but this one was a bit different,” she said, positively glowing moments after being announced the winner. “To work so closely with a blender like John is out of this world. ” Asked about what stood out for her over the past few days, she wasted no time answering: “What’s really nice about this competition is that in London it can sometimes be every man for themselves. It wasn’t like that here. The dinner we had on the first night was incredible – such a beautiful spread. The set up meant that we became like a family working together which I’ve never known in competitions I’ve entered before. That set the scene and changed my perception of competitions on the whole.”
Her favourite bits? “I come from a design background, so the mood board was a particular highlight. Cocktail competitions are usually so liquid focused and I liked the fact that this one wasn’t.” And the hardest? “Marking each other in the Signature Round because we’d become such a family.”
Above: Rosey and John looking forward to creating a new Compass Box blend
She’s looking forward to working with John creating her unique Compass Box blend. “I remember the first time that I tasted a Compass Box blend – it was Great King Street and I was working at Milk & Honey. It totally blew my mind. I, like most people, previously thought of Scotch as an old man’s drink, this was so delicious that it changed my perception of Scotch forever.”
Look out for Rosey’s blend next year when it will be released globally as a one-off limited-edition.