Jake Down won the Bombay Sapphire Stir Creativity competition this year. Now he’s talking about the inspo for his drink.

This year’s competition winner Jake Down from Apollonia in Sydney will head to the home of Bombay Sapphire in October. Photography: Christopher Pearce

Four of Australia’s most skilled and imaginative bartenders – Jake Down (Apollonia), Lachlan Bentley (Gimlet at Cavendish House), Martin McConnell (Frog’s Hollow Saloon) and Pauric Kennedy (Barangaroo House) – brought their most ambitious ideas to life in Sydney recently, competing in the final of the inaugural Bombay Sapphire Stir Creativity Cocktail Competition –– however it was Jake Down who wowed judges with his multisensory Sydney Opera House-inspired ‘Symphony of Sapphire’ creation to take out the top prize.

Open to aspiring bartenders from across the country, the competition drew over 200 entries, acting as a broad survey of some of Australia’s most exciting cocktail-making talent before being whittled down to 21 who were judged around the country in venue. Bombay Sapphire’s prompt: ‘Saw This, Made This,’ invited entrants to seek inspiration from their surroundings to develop a concept that could act as a launch pad for innovative new ideas and storytelling.

The finalists: Martin, Lachlan, Jake & Pauric

Tasked with inventing their very own gin-based cocktail, entrants were given carte blanche to come up with a unique drink that could transport audiences while showcasing the versatility of gins from the Bombay Sapphire family, which includes Bombay Sapphire, Bombay Sapphire Premier Cru, Bombay Citron Pressé, Bombay Bramble and Bombay Sapphire Sunset.

Inspired by the Sydney Opera House, Down explored the concept of synaesthesia, a cognitive phenomenon that blends one’s perception of sight, sound, touch, and taste in unusual ways, incorporating sound and vibration into his cocktail-making process.

For his award-winning turn, Down paid homage to the iconic Sydney Opera House, a landmark he passes on his commute to work at the acclaimed subterranean cocktail bar, Apollonia, in Sydney’s bayside The Rocks.

The winning drink

“My concept started from seeing the Sydney Opera House each day as I get off the train at Circular Quay for work,” Down explains. “Even though I’m often not conscious of it, I remember observing my surroundings and thinking about the iconic nature of this unmistakably Australian landmark; its visual influence fitted perfectly with Bombay Sapphire’s idea of ‘Saw This, Made This,’” he explains, continuing: “I thought: ‘Where can I go with this?’ and explored from there.”

Down selected to feature Bombay Sapphire London Dry Gin for his recipe, a perfectly balanced blend that incorporates fresh young coconut water, mint syrup, faux citrus, saline and his very own house-made “rain aroma” ––ingeniously capturing elements of Sydney’s vibrant energy, nautical identity, and subtropical climate.

So, what’s the secret to nailing a creative concept? “Simple flavours, complex thinking,” Down says. “Less is more. You can always layer complexity into simplicity, but you need to do it through technique, not adding more ingredients,” he explains. “The fewer ingredients, the more impact; otherwise, you risk things tasting diluted or crowded. Rather than adding more, step back and ask whether what you’re doing is the best way to get complexity from the ingredients.”

Inspired by the Sydney Opera House, Down explored the concept of synaesthesia, a cognitive phenomenon that blends one’s perception of sight, sound, touch, and taste in unusual ways, incorporating sound and vibration into his cocktail-making process.

“I was reflecting on the meaning of the Sydney Opera House and how it’s a place to see plays, listen to music, or aural performances,” Down explains. “Sound is so powerful in evoking emotions and memories, and I was curious about how I might incorporate this sense in the making of a cocktail. From there, I started looking into synaesthesia and understanding the ways that flavours, sounds and colours can blend through our senses. It made sense to me to continue my exploration into the realm of sound.”

He continues: “The recipe started off with three key ingredients: coconut, mint, and citrus. I discovered that each flavour could be paired with certain sounds from the spectrum of musical notes. I then used a quartz sound bowl to ‘mix’ the drink, allowing the vibrations to stir the liquid. The resulting cocktail captures the distinctive spirit of Sydney––with bright citrus notes, salty hints and an evocative tropical rain aroma that nodded to the city’s unmistakable summer showers.

As the winner of this year’s competition, Down walked away with a trophy, $3,000 in prize money, and a lapel pin modelled on his winning cocktail. He’ll also be heading to London in October alongside competition judge and Bombay Sapphire Australian Brand Ambassador Corina Retter, for an all-expenses-paid trip that will take in visits to London Cocktail Week and the Bombay Sapphire distillery, Laverstoke Mill, in south-west England.

Bombay Sapphire Australian Brand Ambassador Corina Retter

Corina explains that in such a driven, talented, and broad field of entrants, Down stood out for his honed skills, on-stage charisma, and the assured clarity of his concept.

“One of the biggest challenges of a competition like this is to be able to develop a creative concept that is compelling, convincing and able to take the judges and audience on a journey,” Retter says. “But that’s just the first step; you also have to figure out how to make it delicious,” she laughs. “What stood out with Jake is that he was very confident with his concept and his execution—and his approach was really warm, fun and engaging, which is such an integral skill for a bartender.”

“There is so much talent in this country, it’s incredible the creativity that you see,” Retter continues. “I think there’s an appreciation for quality ingredients creating a real sense of place in the drinks to reflect our unique climate and lifestyle, and our bars and restaurants are all the better for it.”

Retter adds that in the wake of such a strong opening year, the future for the Bombay Sapphire Stir Creativity Cocktail Competition is bright. “Unlike other competitions that might cater to highly experienced bartenders, our vision was to open up this opportunity to a broad audience of bar professionals who had fresh ideas to share and a hunger to learn more about the creative possibilities of Bombay Sapphire.”

Applications for the next Stir Creativity Cocktail Competition open in mid-2024.

This story featured in the July 2023 edition of Australian Bartender Magazine which is in bars now.