Two hours drive north of Sydney and set in the bucolic surrounds of NSW’s Hunter Valley, 12 bartenders from across Australia and New Zealand gathered to see who would win the top prize in The Perfect Blend 2017.
How did they get here? This year’s competition kicked off in September of 2016 with a call for entries put out across the bartenders of the land. The Perfect Blend cocktail competition showcases the talent of bartenders across the nation, whether they are new to the industry, or have been behind the stick for years.
This year, The Blend team received some 500 entries into the competition this year, which for the first time saw New Zealand included in the mix, and in November they announced the 58 state finalists who would compete to land a spot in the national final. The state finals began in February, as the team travelled the country — and held some epic parties along the way. By April, the state champions in both the Apprentice (two years or less in the industry) and the Professional (two years or more) categories had been decided.
What’s at stake? One winner in each category would score the trip of a lifetime to the home of bourbon, Kentucky, to visit the distilleries of Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam. There, they’ll meet master distiller Fred Noe and receive the VIP treatment, before jetting off to New York to party like a rockstar and visit some of the world’s best bars.
The competitors arrived in the Hunter on the Monday, for two days of activities before they competed on the Wednesday. They kicked off with a lunchtime feast at a winery, and capped off the day in the countryside with a dinner matched with whiskeys by The Exchange ambassadors Dan Woolley and Erica Richards.
Tuesday saw ambassadors Matt Barnett and Brendon Rogers talk all things tiki with the competitors, before they were subjected to some unusual challenges by the ambassadors of unusual, Bill Bewsher and Michael Nouri.
Boulevardiers and barbecue followed that evening. Standing out on the deck of the hunting lodge, cocktail in hand, you could hear the roar of lions from the zoo next door, and gaze up at a dark sky splattered with stars, far from the reach of city lights; a tranquil setting for the competitors, whose minds were already turning to the competition the next day.
Wednesday sure enough rolls around, and it’s game day. There’s a sense of uncertainty in the air, a buzz of nervous energy shot through the bartending group; the bar is set up, lighting switched on, and the cameras begin rolling as each of the 12 sit down to a tough exam and a blind tasting. It’s just turned 10am.
The exam has a lot riding on it, because each question they answer correctly gains them 10 seconds in the pantry for the Mystery round, which comes hot on the heels of the exam. The catch: those with the best exam scores get the longest in the pantry to work out just what kind of cocktail they’ll make the judges, and they’ve got the added advantage of first pick — once they’ve taken the ingredient from the pantry, it’s not replaced, so if you’re the last one into the pantry your options are going to be limited. They then step on stage, with just eight minutes to create a drink, made with their choice of Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam Rye, Jim Beam Double Oak, and Jim Beam White. The Professionals take first stab at the pantry, and the judging panel, composed of the ambassadors and Australian Bartender editor Sam Bygrave, take their seats.
The Professionals show what they’re made of and bring their experience to bear on the challenge, delivering some delicious drinks off the cuff; the Apprentices, sitting in the audience and watching the display no doubt pick up some tips and calm their nerves. And when it’s their turn to take the pantry and step out on stage, the Apprentices knock it out of the park.
There’s a brief break before the next and final round, in which each of the bartenders break out the bourbon once again to make their take on a Highball, and showcase their storytelling with a drink that is either a shared cocktail that relives a memory; one that celebrates and occasion or memory; or one that recreates a classic cocktail to tell the story in their own words. Here, they they took their pick of American whiskey from the Beam Suntory portfolio, breaking out the Basil Hayden’s, Bookers, and Knob Creek Rye in addition to the Jim Beam range.
Boy, did the judges have their work cut out for them. The Apprentices this time went first. The judges saw some innovative serves, be it with unique garnishes or packaging, and all of the Apprentices acquitted themselves with aplomb — gone were the usual nerves and shaky hands, with a number of them crafting drinks and telling stories that had the judges asking if they actually should be in the Professional category.
The Professionals then took the stage, and as the sun set on the Hunter Valley and the night descended, demonstrated the reasons why they’d vanquished the competitors in their state finals — put simply, these were some of the best drinks created by some of the greatest hosts that the judges had experienced.
After a long, tough day of competition, everyone boarded the bus to Goldfish Hunter Valley, where they’d feast and learn their fates.
In the end, of course, there could be just one winner in each category. In his first ever competition, Evan Stroeve from Shady Pines Saloon in Sydney took out the top prize in the Apprentice category.
And clinching the win in the Professional category but just half a mark, was Ollie Margan of Adelaide bar, Maybe Mae, with two drinks that the judges agreed they’d go back to the bar for time and time again.
Persistence, it seems, pays off. This was the third time that Margan had taken a crack at the competition, and the prize is one he can’t wait to begin.
“It’s going to be awesome, I’ve never been to that part of the world,” he said. “To go to the distilleries and to go to New York to see some of the bars that we’re all inspired by one way or another, it’s going to be next level.”
The Perfect Blend cocktail competition will return again — the full details of next year’s competition will be announced during Sydney Bar Week this September.
Margan and Stroeve will take up the role of mentor to the next crop of competitors, and Stroeve thinks it’s an experience worth your while.
“It was mind-blowing,” he said. “I wasn’t quite expecting the camaraderie that we experienced. Walking into these things you’re a little bit daunted and a little bit intimidated, but 12 bartenders in a hunting lodge, in the Hunter, drinking the whiskey’s unifies everyone pretty quickly.”
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