Bartender of the Year 2021 James Grant faces the future

Diageo World Class excited to support the bartending comeback

Diageo World Class Global Bartender of the Year James Grant gets a lift from previous winners of the World Class Canada title. Photos courtesy of World Class Canada

It took James Grant only a decade to go from bartending “to pay the bills” to becoming the Diageo World Class Global Bartender of 2021—a title that recognizes him as the world’s best bartender.

“It’s pretty wild. It’s finally started to sink in,” says the bar manager of Edmonton’s Little Hong Kong. “I’m very humbled and grateful to have done OK representing the Canadian bartending community on the world stage.”

When the results were tallied back in July, it was the second time in only four years that a Canadian triumphed over 50 other countries to take home the cocktail world’s most prestigious title; the first was in 2017 when Vancouver’s Kaitlyn Stewart won. For Grant, this means his life is about to change, even though right now it all feels pretty much like business as usual.

Despite pandemic-related restrictions, he’s already seeing his schedule start to fill up with travel, conferences, events and opportunities. It starts in November with the launch party for the inaugural Vancouver Cocktail Week, when he’ll be in town making cocktails for industry and media guests, including an adaptation of his World Class-winning Johnnie Walker highball inspired by Edmonton’s river valley.

“It’s really exciting to see the industry coming back to life,” he says, noting that World Class plans to play a pivotal role in the industry’s post-pandemic comeback.

Since it began in 2009, more than 400,000 bartenders from 60 countries have taken part in World Class (Canada only started competing in 2013). But it is much more than a competition. It is a network of friends and colleagues that emphasizes the importance of education, training and staying on top of important industry trends.

Grant, who leads the bar at Edmonton’s Little Hong Kong, is looking forward to a year of travel, special events and education with Diageo World Class—starting with an appearance at the Vancouver Cocktail Week launch party
in November.

“What I love about World Class—you’ll hear people jokingly refer to it as the Olympics of bartending, but it’s more than that,” Grant says. In the Olympic Games, he notes, athletes excel in one sport. But at World Class, competitors have to excel at all aspects of the industry, from speed to creativity to service to menu development.

“Then you bring all these improved skills back into what you do the other 364 days of the year, which is serving your guests,” he says. “I could learn something new every day and still not know the half of it. You’re combining all these skills to host somebody like you would in your home. I think that’s so rewarding and such a privilege.”

He still remembers the first time he competed in World Class, back in 2017, how unprepared he was for the challenges it posed, and how emotional the finish was. He laughs and says, “There are two things that will always be true [about World Class]—the first is that they will announce a winner, and the second is that I will cry.”

But even then, he says, “I recognized it as an opportunity to grow and develop and build these relationships in the industry. World Class—I couldn’t recommend it enough to other bartenders.”

World Class is proud to partner with Vancouver Cocktail Week. Catch up with the World Class Team March 6 to 10, 2022.

Diageo World Class Canada,

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