Diageo World Class is back with a thrilling competition and big new plans
Michael Armistead thought organizing the 2019 World Class Canada finals in Whistler—where he had to transport all the bars, people and gear to the top of a mountain—was the hardest thing he’d ever do. Then along came COVID-19 and the 2021 finals in Toronto.
“Having done it, I know we can do anything now,” says Armistead, who oversees the Diageo World Class Canada Bartending Competition as National On Premise, Reserve and Sponsorship Manager. “With all of the external factors, this was the most complex event I have ever put together.”
On March 30, Edmontonian James Grant took home the title of Canada’s Bartender of the Year 2021. Grant, who is originally from Melbourne, Australia, and works at Edmonton’s Little Hong Kong, was the first bartender from the Prairies to take home the top prize since Canada began taking part in the global competition in 2013.
It was a joyful way to end a challenging year for the industry.
When the global pandemic hit bars and restaurants, brands including Diageo jumped in to help through generous donations to the Bartenders Benevolent Fund, Canadian Professional Bartenders Association and other organizations. Diageo World Class Canada also helped the community stay connected through online education opportunites and the competition itself, which saw the second highest number of entries ever.
Even so, Armistead only decided to go ahead with the finals eight days before they were held, and says he couldn’t have done it without the team at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.
“It was live for the bartenders, but livestreamed for the public,” he says. “We carefully followed the same protocols put in place by the NHL and MLSE. The group of bartenders were so happy to be there, and they were so supportive of each other.”
The event followed stringent protocols similar to those on a film set. All the participants were sequestered in a hotel. The production team was cut to half its usual size, and no more than 10 people were in any room at any time. “We were in our own bubble,” Armistead says.
Finally, after a head-to-head speed-round showdown, Grant edged out his fellow top-four finalists, Daphnee Vary Deshaies from B.C. and Toronto’s Oliver Stern and Jess Mili.
Grant will now compete in the global finals of the world’s biggest, most prestigious cocktail competition in Madrid, Spain, July 3 to 8. Given the ongoing uncertainty around the pandemic, the competition will be held virtually, with as many as 60 country winners streamed live from across the world as they take part in challenges sponsored by the Diageo Reserve brands.
But even before he tackles Madrid, Grant will enjoy a quintessentially Canadian experience.
“It’s the 50th anniversary of the Juno Awards this year [on June 6] and as a part of the title, James is producing a Junos cocktail for the opening reception,” Armistead says. Grant will also join Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy in a presentation to MusiCounts, the Junos’ fundraising arm.
Meanwhile, Armistead is looking ahead to the future. “I’ve been thinking about what we can do with World Class this year,” he says. “What I would like to do when everything is fully open is have a party in every city. Just get as many people together as possible and reconnect with everybody.”
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Diageo World Class Canada,