If we had to hand out a trophy to the drinks industry awards ceremony that packs in as much glitz, glamour and good times as the Oscars, it would go to the DRiNK Magazine Bar Awards (DMBA), no question. Set up four years ago by Theo Watt to acknowledge the wealth of talent making waves in China and Asia’s bartending scene, this annual event has grown exponentially in size as well as status.

Anyone who’s anyone in the drinks world in and around Asia makes it their business to be on the guest list. And as is the way in China, they get into the spirit of things in ultimate style. That means black tie for the guys and the fanciest of frocks for the ladies and that respect and desire to look like they actually give a damn is rewarded with the mother of all shows.

DMBA is a window into what’s happening in China and Asia in one night – not just to the rest of the world but to the millions that will be streaming

It starts with the pre-awards drinks. “In year one, we had one main bar, this year we have 13,” says Theo Watt ahead of the event in early December. It was Iain Griffiths and Mikey Ball who set the tone for the inaugural DMBA ceremony in 2016 with a replica of the award-winning Dandelyan bar from London. Fast-forward to 2019 and the mix of talent from around the world who received the call to set up bar in the foyer of the Jing-An hotel ballroom in Shanghai included Erik Lorincz from Kwañt, and Alistair Burgess from Happiness Forgets, both representing London, with Joe Schofield from soon-to-be-opened Schofield’s Bar in Manchester making up the UK contingent.

Flying the flag for Australia we had Martin Hudak from Maybe Sammy in Sydney and Ryan Noreiks from Fancy Free in Melbourne. And of course there was the talent from a little closer to home, including Rogerio Igarashi Vaz from Bar Trench in Tokyo; the team from Employees Only Singapore and Shingo Gokan from Speak Low, Sober Company and The Odd Couple from down the road in Shanghai. There was also a special appearance from the winning teams from this year’s Chivas Masters as well as the Cointreau Queens, headed up by Beckaly Franks of Hong Kong’s The Pontiac.

That was merely the amuse bouches, a perfectly executed taster of the five-star evening ahead. This way, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill do. There’s the swankiest of dinners, five-star production, big-time entertainment and of course, the presentation of those coveted, beautifully crafted trophies.

Photographs above and below: Robin Mas

But before we get to the winners, a few words from Theo Watt, founder of DMBA and emcee along with Eddy Yang on the evening:

How long was DMBA in the making?

The magazine came first but in the same year that we launched it, I was thinking about how we could turn the publication into an awards ceremony. Before coming to Shanghai I was in Australia where they had plenty of activations like this – it was a great benchmark. Here, in China, where nothing like this has been done before, you have many dreams. I wanted to grow the brand into a bar show and an awards ceremony but the most important thing for me was to choose the right time to do things. That and building trust and credibility with our readership and client base. 

So, when was the right time?

It was seven years of thinking ‘can I get it done’ and ‘what do I need to get it done’ before actually going ahead and doing it. Key to that was the design for the award; that was one of the things that I needed to have right before even thinking about anything else. In the end, it was my dad, Laurence Watt, who came up with the look of the awards and logo. We were having drinks at his house when he came out with the sketch. I was like “ dude, that’s it!” and that was the spark to the flame.

Each award is created by British silversmith Julie Jones and made of solid silver. The three most prestigious awards – Bar of the Year, Bartender of the Year and our Founders Award – are coated in gold.

Apart from your father, who was involved in the early stages of the awards?

The event was primarily sponsored by Chivas Regal and a bunch of great companies who supported the 16 awards.

What’s the overall aim of the evening?

DMBA is a window into what’s happening in China and Asia in one night – not just to the rest of the world but to the millions that will be streaming. It’s an insight into just how great this industry is; for all the people behind the scenes including the best brand, innovative brands, entrepreneurs etc. There are lots of awards, not just for bartenders but the whole industry. The aim is to show the millions who are streaming to give cocktails a go; we’re saying don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone. Chinese people are very aspirational – that’s why I spend so much on those awards – when people see that bartenders are worth a gold award, they take them seriously. 

How has DMBA evolved over the years?

In the first year the awards were in a smaller hotel ballroom with 280 guests. We had one bar and one main sponsor, Chivas, plus a couple of other brands. Year two was a little more difficult as the magazine had closed [however, the digital platform is thriving] but we made it happen. Last year was great, we had 590 people and this year is our biggest yet with 680 guests.

How, if at all, has the bar scene changed in China and Asia in the time that you’ve been in Shanghai?

It’s nuts, when I came here 12 years ago, there was nothing – I mean nothing! When I asked bartenders what they’re favourite drinks were, they came back with things like a Kamikazee or Screwdriver! The other noticeable thing was that bartenders had no style then – now they dress to the nines. People are polishing their drinks a lot – not just here in China but all over Asia. Kuala Lumpur is awesome, Bangkok too, and of course there’s Singapore, which is a hub that brings everyone through to the rest of the world.

Lastly, what are your plans for the future?

The next step is we’re aiming to build a cocktail festival around the awards. It will be a four to five day festival spread across the city and we’ll have a whole street lined with little bars. It won’t just be about cocktails – we’ll have tea, coffee, water – all kinds of drinks. The aim will be the same as with everything we do, trying to get people to drink better 

The awards

Give it up to the following, the well deserved, perfectly captured winners of DMBA 2019

Awards photographs: Luke Liu

The awards in full:

Bar Team (Asia) (New for 2019) 
Presented by Luxardo
The Old Man, Hong Kong

Bartender of the Year (Asia)
Presented by Peddlers Gin
Jay Khan

International Bartender of the Year
Presented by Jiangxiaobai
Martin Hudak

Sustainability Award
Presented by Bacardi
The Hope & Sesames

Service Award
Presented by Rémy Martin
Hope & Sesame, Guangzhou

Bar Team
Presented by Chivas Regal
Hope & Sesame, Guangzhou

Innovation Award
Presented by US Cranberry
24/7 by Secoo

Bartender Brand
Presented by DRiNK Magazine
Peddlers Gin

Brand Ambassador
Presented by Small Batch Learning
Craig Swindell – Chivas Regal

Design Award
Presented by Campari
Arch by Taste Buds, Shanghai

Music Program
Presented by Chandon
E.P.I.C., Shanghai

Wine Program
Presented by Ray Fine Wines
Napa Wine Bar & Kitchen, Shanghai

Beer Program
Presented by Viola
Stone Brewing Tap Room, Shanghai

Restaurant Bar
Presented by Aperitivo Select
Hakkasan, Shanghai

High Volume Bar
Presented by Woodford Reserve
Atelier by Taste Buds, Shanghai

Hotel Bar
Presented by Fever-Tree
Punch Room – The Shanghai EDITION

Cocktail Program
Presented by Cointreau
Sober Company, Shanghai

Bar of the Year
Presented by Maker’s Mark
Sober Company, Shanghai

Bar of the Year (Asia)
Presented by Amaro Montenegro
COA, Hong Kong

Entrepreneurship Award
Presented by Hennessy
Taste Buds

Founders Award
Presented by Thirsty Work Productions
Cross Yu

To keep-up-to-date with what’s going on in China and Asia’s bar scene, see drinkmagazine.asia

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