The cocktail culture in South Africa took off slowly but is now flying along like a jumbo jet. Occupying most of the first class cabin is Diageo, the global drinks giant. Their World Class Bartender of the Year competition incentivizes members of the bartending community to create cocktails from the Diageo Reserve range of spirits. There are prizes – travel, equipment, money – but from what I’ve seen the competitors do what they do for the love of cocktails and recognition from peers and industry legends.
On Monday night I attended the Cape Town regional finals of the World Class competition. It is a whole day affair with each of the 10 contestants having 2 opportunities to show off their skills and suffer through what must be an excruciatingly nerve-wracking time behind the bar. Bradley Jacobs, whisky pundit and genial face of the Diageo Reserve brands, hosted the evening. The judges included Chantelle Horne (who I dubbed the cocktail queen many years ago) and 2015 winner Dom De Lorenzo.
The venue was the newish bar in Cape Town, Outrage of Modesty. It is at 88 Shortmarket Street but don’t expect a sign, a number or a normal entrance. Follow the tatty stairs and flaking plaster on the walls to designer cocktail heaven. They do cutting edge cocktails – on steroids.
The “hero” or main spirit of the evening was Don Julio Tequila, part of the Diageo Reserve range of luxury spirits, which includes Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Gold Label Reserve, and Platinum Label Whisky, Ketel One and Ciroc Vodka, Zacapa Rum and Tanqueray No. Ten Gin.
I’ve been to a few of these competitions and learnt to check what I think I know about cocktails at the door, while I prepare my brain and palate to be blown away.
Those from the bartending community, a large family of wonderful people working crazy hours behind bars, who are selected for the competition, spend months experimenting. They infuse, foam, pour, shake, rattle, roll and stir all manner of herbs, spices, fruits, vegetables, juices and spirits. They practice their art – because what they present to the judges are works or art.
I started noting the names and ingredients of the drinks the contestants made but gave up. Way too complicated for me and definitely not something I could attempt at home!
The finalists were:
3rd place went to Justin; Vlad came second and Brent won. Next stop is the national round, then the glitzy and glamourous global event. How much better can the drinks get? I don’t know. But each time I’ve thought things can’t really get much better, they do. It is a treat to sit on my side of the bar and enjoy what these passionate, dedicated and positively brilliant bartenders create.
I’ll end with a poem Brett recited at the end of his presentation – where he used burnt coconut husk to spice beer. Yes, it works!
By fires light
And the stars at night
The village elders spoke of the spirits true might
They spoke of the land
They spoke of the trees
They were many but now are few
They lamented this over the tribal brew.