Monday 3 December 2012

Beefeater 24 global cocktail competition

The 14 hopefuls set up their stations as guests sample the cocktails and make their choices
I was invited to help judge the Beefeater 24 Global Competition last Wednesday evening at the Shoreditch Studios in London. Beefeater had flown in hopeful bartenders from all over the world, vying for the prize of a trip to Japan, and earlier in the day they had encountered challenges measuring all aspects of modern bartending, including food matching. The organisers are looking for more than just the finished drink, judging overall ability to be a host and, unsurprisingly, an understanding of Beefeater 24 and its history and place in the cocktail pantheon. But our role was simply to taste 14 cocktails and choose our favourite.

It’s always interesting to go into a bar, study the menu, try a few drinks and get a clear sense of how this particularly mixologist’s thoughts and palate work. But it’s not often you’ll find yourself confronted with 14 different sensibilities in the same room. Having said that, it was noticeable how much similarity there was in the ingredients. Tim Stones, a B24 ambassador, explained that the contestants were told they had to include tea (Japanese sencha tea and Chinese green tea are ingredients in Beefeater 24). But grapefruit was also common (grapefruit peel is in the botanical mix of the gin too, along with more conventional orange and lemon peel) as was honey and elderflower. Tim mentioned that in the past you would get clear national styles emerging when judging competitions like this, but nowadays bartending is a much more global community and the styles are more homogenised and the standard higher. (Though he did mention that in an early heat one chap presented a simple gin and tonic as his entry—Tim couldn’t decide if he had misunderstood the idea of the competition or if he just had enormous front…)

These were the cocktails on offer:

Mr Burroughs’ Reviver
Nathan O’Neil, United Kingdom
The Mr Burroughs in question turns out to be Beefeater founder James Burroughs and not, as I had hoped, elegant beatnik hallucinatory wordsmith William Burroughs. The cocktail is a variant of the Corpse Reviver No.2, featuring absinthe (but, mercifully, no heroin, peyote, yage, bug powder, the True Black Meat of the Giant Centipede, or any of the other intoxicants that feature in Mr Burroughs’ oeuvre). The absinthe is infused with lapsang souchong tea, and there is also a green tea and sencha tea syrup, aquavit, orgeat and lemon juice. The nose is dominated by lemon, but the palate is more complex, with notes of honey, warming anise and something floral. I liked these elements but I think overall it doesn’t have the righteous balance of a normal Corpse Reviver.

The Trading Company Martini—not much
like a Martini, really
Trading Company Martini
Marko Radičev, Serbia
Named after the East India Trading Company, this drink takes its inspiration from ingredients that were shipped to this country by that goliath of a corporation (James Burroughs’ father was a tea merchant himself, which is where today’s master distiller Desmond Payne got the idea for B24). It has a nose of weak lemon and a palate that is surprisingly light and thin with a citrus peel/tea bitterness. Probably too bitter for many, and not really much like a Martini.

Diogo Quinaz, Portugal
The name comes from the main ingredients, gin, fresh ginger and grapefruit (jamboa in Portuguese). The nose is of honey and ginger plus a medicinal note and the palate is very bold but very balanced—sweetness from honey, tartness from citrus, tannin dryness from tea and a fiery finish from ginger. This was one of my favourites, robust and to-the-point but also multi-faceted, with all the ingredients playing their part. Which is what a good cocktail is all about.

The So British
Aurélie Pezet, France
Aurélie uses a special blend of Earl Grey (which she considers quintessentially English) flavoured with lime and grapefruit peel and some sort of purple flower for which she could not think of the English name. There is also elderflower and grapefruit juice in the mix. The drink has a surprising pungence from the elderflower and waxy honey, combined with a refreshing citrus tang. The notes of Earl Grey and elderflower do somehow seen redolent of an English summer, so I can forgive the cheesy name.

Diogo Quinaz with his Ginjamboa
Desert Punch
Alexander Frezza, Italy
Alexander takes his inspiration from the Moroccan tea ceremony, and in particular the punch-style idea of a drink as an evolving group experience rather than a single serving. Moroccan tea is poured from a height into small glasses and the drinker is expected to have several of these. The fresh mint in the pot gradually infuses a bitterness into the tea as is steeps, and the saying goes (if I remember it correctly) that the first glass is as fresh as life, the second as sweet as love and the third as bitter as death. Not sure that third glass is really selling itself to me. This simple cocktail—just gin, tea, citrus and mint—is light and does have a refreshing mint flavour with a bitter finish, though I’m not sure it could hold my interest long enough to make it to that deathly third glass.

Mr Oolong’s Fixer Upper
Hasse Bank Johansen, Nordic
Hasse runs a bar in Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, on the Jutland peninsula, where he is pretty much inventing the market. He takes great delight in introducing mixology to people who may never had tasted a cocktail before. He studied bartending in Japan for a while, where his teacher was actually called Mr Oolong and served them all oolong tea each morning to wake them up from the previous night’s indulgence, so this drink was named in his honour. As Hasse says, it is a Martini-style cocktail, with the gin strongly to the fore, plus a homemade oolong cordial, citric acid and some grapefruit bitters. I admired the restraint, giving the podium to the gin rather than trying to show off, while the other ingredients did a good job of adding just the right amounts of sweetness, sourness and tannic dryness. It’s the sort of drink I would actually order in a bar.

Raphaël Trémérie, Belgium
The name is the Latin for cardamom, and the cocktail also has a green tea syrup, apple and lime. Raphaël had a picnic hamper on display with little phials of the ingredients and his suggestion was that it was something anyone could make, though I doubt most people would want to take this chemistry set with them on a picnic. The drink has a vivid green colour which Raphaël said came from the tea, though it looked rather artificial to me (like Monin’s Green Apple Syrup, which may have been involved). The green tea is pronounced and I liked the appley aromatics, though it’s a bit sweet for me with a confectionary note that would probably put me off from drinking very much of it.
Belgium's entry, Raphaël Trémérie's chemistry-set picnic concept of the Elletaria cocktail

La Bella Donna
Sarah Parniak, Canada
Sarah is proud of her Italian roots, hence the name of this drink, though I’m not entirely clear on what’s particularly Italian about the recipe: sencha tea, liquorice, honey, Lillet Rose, orange blossom water, grapefruit oil and a homemade lemon cordial. It has a light, delicate, evasive flavour, with beeswax headiness of the honey and liquorice coming through and, oddly, a hint of rose (and apparently I’m not the only person to get that), even though there is no rose in it. Perhaps it is the blossom combining with something else. I think Sarah said she created the recipe with flavours that reminded her of time spent with her Italian grandmother, and this light, fresh, aromatic drink, does have teasing ghosts of scent that seem reminiscent of a half-remembered past.

As the judges deliberate, in the background Jamil, with his Japanese teapot,
rustles up a coconut-flavoured Coco Verde
Coco Verde
Jamil El Azem, Austria
Jamil described this as a “gin-based fancy Japanese cocktail”, serving it from an elegant Japanese tea pot, and its ingredients include green tea and sake, but also a syrup made from dried coconut. This is very important to him and he kept emphasising how unusual it was to have coconut in a cocktail these days and how he wanted to rehabilitate it as an ingredient. (I think he had consumed quite a few of his own cocktails by the time I spoke to him…) The coconut is actually quite subtle in the finished drink, with tangy lime juice to the fore and the tea clearly present, plus a mysterious earthy element that might come from the sake, with its distinctive dry, savoury flavour. Jamil seemed rather affronted when I suggested an earthy note, but, as I say, he was three sheets to the wind by this stage. Actually quite a poised drink in some ways but perhaps more “interesting” than moreish.

The 24/7 Cocktail
Gregory Ian Sanderson, Australia
When I asked Greg what his cocktail was all about he began a spiel about how the name comes from the fact that as a barman he likes to entertain 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and my heart began to sink. But he’s a likeable chap who had an unusual twist to his offering. The basic recipe is fairly simple, combining the gin with grapefruit juice, elderflower liqueur and his own tea blend that includes sencha and lapsang souchong (he admits the tea on its own is too strong and bitter to be very nice but is designed to work in the cocktail). But just before he serves it he invites you to roll a die on to a wooden backgammon board on which he has laid out little bowls of six of the dried botanicals from the gin. Next to each bowl is an atomiser containing an extract of that botanical. Depending on which number comes up when you roll, Greg sprays that essence into the air over your drink before handing it to you. It’s an interesting idea to build in an element of randomness like this, and also just the idea that each iteration of a cocktail is designed to vary. For me, liquorice root came up, and the nose of grapefruit and elderflower was joined by a woody note. As if that wasn’t enough, Greg serves his cocktail from a teapot, and encourages you to taste a grapefruit-dipped morsel of duck rillette with your cocktail (which goes remarkably well). On its own, though, the cocktail was nice enough, with an interesting bitter-sweet finish, but perhaps a tad disappointing after all the build-up.

Greg dispenses his B24/7, complete with Dice Man spritz and duck rillette
B.P. Ruby @ 24
Eduard Ondracek, Czech Republic
This raspberry-dominated drink has evolved since its inception, its creator told me. An early version that got him through the heats had mint and crushed ice in it, but then the seasons changed so he removed those elements. The version I tasted had an Earl Grey syrup and, oddly, Maldon sea salt in the gin. On the nose, to me, it seemed to smell of tomato, making me expect a Bloody Mary: whether it is the salt doing this (can you smell salt?), I don’t know. On the palate it is mostly fresh raspberry with a rich texture from egg white. The salt is pronounced and it isn’t revolting, but I’m not sure it’s helping much. I think it would make it hard to drink very much of this cocktail.

B24 Martinez
Alex Chatte, Hong Kong
I think in this cocktail the tea was infused directly into the gin, and the other ingredients include Italian and French dry vermouths, grapefruit bitters and a late-harvest Sauvignon Blanc reduction with honeycomb. (Although representing Hong Kong, Alex comes originally from France, so it’s not surprising that wine should feature in his recipe.) Unusually, Alex invites to you try the drink with a nibble of 74%-cocoa-solid chocolate with Szechuan pepper. On the nose the cocktail is dry and aromatic with notes of honey and lavender, while the palate is sweeter and has that now familiar wax note from honey. With sour and tea-tannin bitter elements, the cocktail avoids being cloying, and in fact is relatively light to match with a heavyweight like chocolate, but it does work in an unexpected way. But if you’re going to spend an evening pummelling your liver with cocktails, it doesn’t seem fair to be encouraged to scoff chocs at the same time!

The Watchman’s Wife
Katrin Reitz, Germany
The watchman in the name is the Beefeater himself, guarding the Tower of London, and the reference to his wife is a nod to what Katrin sees as the floral, more feminine elements in this drink. Apples and pears are muddled with a cardamom syrup, oolong tea, rosewater and lime, but this cocktail is most noticeable for being the only one here that uses tonic water (in this case Thomas Henry, a German brand that is very good but hard to come by in the UK). Given that G&T is doubtless the default way of consuming gin for most people in this country (and probably the world), it is surprising that there aren’t more cocktails based on this combo. Katrin’s drink was masterfully balanced, with apple, pear, tea and rose all slotting into place, but you could also just enjoy it as a G&T, and for that reason I ultimately decided it was my pick of the bunch.

Pandora’s Box
Panagiotis Kanavetas, Greece
In addition to curaçao, lemon juice, agave syrup, peach bitters and citrus tea, this cocktail, unusually, featured milk—which I assume is a reference to the milk that is often added to tea. Its creator told me that the tea is usually served as a tea bag, infusing in the cocktail glass, which must further enhance the reference. I’m sure the name came from a desire to highlight his nation’s mythological tradition, though by the time he served it to me Panagiotis had actually changed it: he said he had realised that most of the things that came out of Pandora’s Box were actually unpleasant, so maybe it wasn’t such a great name… The end result is quite simple, with a big citrus jolt, followed by a sort of lactic mouthfeel, then the drying tannins. But to be honest I think I’d sooner just have a cup of tea.

Canada's Sarah Parniak talks a customer through her La Bella Donna cocktail
In the end I gave my top three as 1) the Watchman’s Wife for combining balanced complexity with straightforward drinkability, 2) the Ginjamboa for much the same reason, being multifaceted but bold enough that you didn’t have to concentrate too hard to get interest out of it, and 3) the So British, again a punchy drink with a subtle aura of English-summer grace notes. I’m pleased to say that the Watchman’s Wife won the public vote, so clearly we were all thinking along similar lines.* And it supports the notion that a good cocktail has to be more than just tricksy, playful or complex—it has to satisfy, the sort of drink you want when you just fancy a drink, a drink you don’t have to think about too hard to enjoy.

* The overall winner of the competition, judged by the organisers, was the UK's Nathan O’Neill.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Man Van. Bit of a marathon, this one, but I'm glad you enjoyed it.