Byron Bay, Northern NSW: it’s a place, sure, but it’s also a state of mind.
It’s a state of mind that reflected the priorities of 2018’s instalment of The Perfect Blend Cocktail Competition from The Blend by Beam Suntory. Sustainability has been high on their agenda this year, thanks to the successful Trash Tiki tour of the country they put on for The Blends of the World, and there’s few better places in the world than Byron Bay to get a real sense of what sustainability means in practice.
There were close to 450 entries into The Perfect Blend 2018, which saw 79 state finalists found across Australia and New Zealand. The competition took to the road late February, completing a lap of the country and heading across the ditch to our neighbours in NZ, where they hosted the state finals (and throwing a helluva bartender party each night), and picked up a winner in both the Professional and Apprentice categories in each state.
In the end, six Professional and six Apprentice category winners gathered in picturesque Byron Bay for three days of workshops, including yoga to convey the importance of sustainability from within, and health and well-being, relaxation, and a seminar, called Speakeasy, which gave them tips and techniques for public speaking, and also enjoyed a whiskies of the world dinner as they got to know one another.
Held at The Bolt Hole in Byron Bay, the final round of competition wasn’t going to be simple. Each bartender would sit a blind tasting, in which they had to identify a range of whiskies from the comprehensive Beam Suntory portfolio, followed by an exam which tested not only their knowledge, but their ability to think creatively and outside the square, the same way The Exchange brand ambassadors do.
Then they needed to present two drinks before a panel of judges including The Exchange ambassadors, last year’s winners Ollie Margan (Maybe Mae, Adelaide) and Evan Stroeve (Shady Pines Saloon, Sydney), and Australian Bartender editor Sam Bygrave. Each of their drinks corresponded with a distinct challenge: the first challenged them to Refresh The Way You Whisk(e)y, taking the classic Highball and putting their own innovative and expressive twist on the drink using a selection of whiskies from the Beam Suntory portfolio: Jim Beam White, Black, Double Oak, and Rye; Maker ’s Mark; Canadian Club 1858, and 8 Year Old; The Chita, and Kakubin from Suntory; Bowmore 12 Year Old; Auchentoshan American Oak; and the lightly peated Irish whiskey, Connemara.
For the second drink, and with the Trash Tiki tour in mind (that was hosted by Iain Griffiths and Kelsey Ramage earlier this year), the second challenge was called Minimal Waste, Maximum Taste and tasked the competitors with developing a second-use technique that employed an ingredient from their Highball and found new life and purpose for it in this drink. Points were awarded for new and inventive ways of extracting the maximum taste from ingredients that would otherwise go to waste, and to great effect on the day.
The judges assessed the two drinks from the Professionals first, affording the Apprentices the opportunity to watch and learn from their colleagues who have been through this before. But as always with The Perfect Blend, the Apprentice competitors stepped up to the high bar set by the Professionals, and the judges were impressed by the level of drinks and performance and creativity on display throughout the day.
There could be only one winner per category, however, and after announcing the runners up — Max Roberts Bristow from Wellington, NZ, in the Professional category, and Emma Crisp from Perth, WA, in the Apprentice category — Beam Suntory national brand activation manager, Hayley Morison, announced the winners: from Public House Management Group in NSW, it was Kurtis Bosley, taking out the Professional category with an all-round display of knowledge, technique, and creativity; and from New Gold Mountain in Melbourne, Tim Pope took home the big prize for the Apprentice category, wowing the judges with some perfectly executed drinks worthy of a place with the Professionals.
“For me personally, it was a really good feeling winning,” said Bosley. “A lot of work went into it, and I know how much effort the other competitors put into the competition, so it meant a lot to me.”
For Pope, who is still new to the bartending game, competing in the Apprentice category of The Perfect Blend was a great opportunity and a career highlight.
“It’s absolutely incredible,” he says. “I’m so much further along than I ever thought I would be at this point in my career. I’ve been bartending just on two years, and hadn’t poured a pint before I set foot in Australia two years ago. So to compete in — and to win — The Perfect Blend, I just can’t describe it.”
The two bartenders will now reap their rewards and enjoy their prize, a bartending trip of a lifetime to the USA to visit Beam Suntory’s distilleries in Kentucky and to take part in the festivities of Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. Once they’ve returned, with their experiences fresh in the memory, both Bosley and Pope will take on a mentoring role for the next iteration of the competition.