Behind the scenes of competitive cocktails
Nothing says Monday morning quite like arriving at a bar at 10.30 a.m. ready to drink all day. The scene at Main Street’s Cascade Room is organized chaos. Bartenders, usually never seen out before noon, are slugging coffee offered both straight up or spiked.
There are crates and boxes all over the place. Recognizable labels of Scotch, rye, mescal, Cognac and more jostle beside unlabelled bottles of homemade fat-washed and syrupy concoctions. This is clearly a serious affair.
I’m here to judge the Giffard Canada Iron Mixologist 2017 competition alongside local bartending luminaries Shaun Layton and Jay Jones. The stakes are high: the winner will be taken to France to compete in the Giffard West Cup in Angers. The rules demand an original cocktail created with Giffard Banane du Brésil liqueur as inspiration, and there are, we are told, 19 entrants. Gulp.
The choice of the Banane was strategic. Giffard wasn’t sure, but award-winning drinks master David Wolowidnyk (formerly of West and CinCin and soon to head up the new Botanist at the Fairmont Pacific Rim) consulted on the event, and he was adamant.
“They were worried we’d be drinking Daiquiris all day,” he explains. “But I told them that here in Vancouver and Victoria, bartenders would go out of their way to avoid the obvious. That this community is creative to its core.”
For the best part of five hours we watch, sip and (professionals that we are) spit as competitors mix up flips, fizzes and frothy concoctions.
He wasn’t wrong: for the best part of five hours we watch, sip and (professionals that we are) spit as competitors mix up flips, fizzes and frothy concoctions that take inspiration from everything from Elvis to Donkey Kong, and the Loire Valley (home of Giffard) to the tropics.
And as impressive as the effort put into coming up with an original drink that displays imagination, skill and flair, is the collective vibe in the room. Yes, this is a competition. Yes, there’s a really impressive prize up for grabs. But there is also genuine care and respect in this room — and a rousing cheer with every vigorous agitation (often double fisted) of a cocktail shaker.
Mentorship is also key: Wolowidnyk, Layton and today’s host at Cascade, Justin Taylor, are all past Giffard winners, and are generous with their insights and advice. There’s a palpable buzz among them when someone new steps up and displays real potential.
Still, nerves are on display: hands tremble precariously, key ingredients are forgotten, a full shaker slips loose mid-air (thankfully holding its seam). Contestants have six minutes to mix and serve their drink, with points deducted for going over time. They are judged on technique, presentation, inspiration, service and, of course, taste.
In the end, the drink is what counts — whether it is balanced, not too sweet and feels right in the mouth. We must also be able to taste the banana. The top three emerge easily as we tally the points, scoring highly for flavour and presentation. In third place is the Vancouver Club’s Julian Dobko for his rum and Key lime Forgotten Jungle, looking very classy in a Nick and Nora glass. Next is Kaitlyn Stewart (Royal Dinette) with a cachaça-based riff on a banana cream pie, including a blowtorched meringue topping.
First place goes to Amber Bruce from the Keefer Bar with a flip inspired by both her mom’s banana bread and the classic Robin Williams’ show Mork and Mindy. Her Mork from Ork is rich and creamy, boozy with genever and local amaro from Odd Society, and spiked with cardamom syrup (a nod to her Scandinavian heritage).
As Mork would say: “Nanu, nanu.”
—by Fiona Morrow