BEIRUT: The measurements are precise; the flavors are layered with a hint of bitters or a dash of port; and the final shake of the steel mixer to cool the drink is, to some, a science. “It’s also about personality.
The bartender’s positivity and confidence directly influence a drink,” said Ueno Hidetsugu, master bartender and owner of High Five in Tokyo.
There’s a lot more to the art of making a cocktail than simply gulping it down. Such was the message at the first round of Diageo’s World Class bartending competition at Al-Mandaloun restaurant-nightclub Wednesday afternoon.
The competition will name Lebanon’s top bartender and send him or her off to compete in the international World Class competition. This year’s final contest will be held on a cruise ship traveling through Nice, Cannes, Barcelona and St. Tropez.
Hidetsugu and the winner of 2012’s World Class competition, Tim Philips, were the judges of Wednesday’s contest and sat down with The Daily Star before round one to talk about the intricacies of professional mixology.
Philips, now the owner of Bulletin Place in Melbourne, Australia, compared the art of drink mixing to baking, as both require precise measurements.
“I’m waxing lyrical, but you have to measure everything,” he said.
In the average haunt around the streets of Beirut, classic drinks comprise low-quality alcohols and bartenders are expected to mask their harshness with other flavors.
The difficulty in high-end mixology, Philips explained, is in playing on the taste of first-class spirits, such as Ciroc or Johnny Walker.
“You don’t want to hide the flavor of the alcohol,” he said.
One such method of enhancing the flavors of a given drink is to add a spoonful of port, a fortified wine from Portugal, Philips suggested.
“Port is incredibly out of fashion, but it ticks every box,” he said. The secret ingredient will enhance the flavor of drinks both sweet and savory: margaritas, manhattans or bloody marys. “It’s the difference between black-and-white and color TV.”
Hidetsugu emphasized the importance of charisma and cleanliness, comparing the mixologist to a chef without the comfort of a secluded kitchen.
“The chef [is second to a] bartender slightly, because a chef can hide,” he said “We start from the beginning out in the open. We can’t hide.”
In Japan, where finesse is never sacrificed for efficiency, Hidetsugu has left a legacy in ice cutting. Water in Japan is frozen at a higher temperature over a longer time, giving ice a clearer and harder finish, he explained.
Rather than scooping up precut cubes of cloudy ice, Japanese bartenders cut their own ice into cubes with perfectly defined edges. Hidetsugu demonstrated cutting the ice with a sharp meat cleaver and a heavy mallet.
He’s the only man in the world to serve ice diamonds in his drinks – cubes of ice carved to look like diamond gems – he said. He’s tried to train staff to make them but to no avail.
To name the best drink proved a difficult feat for two men surrounded by top spirits.
Despite his profession, Hidetsugu said he rarely drinks. If he were to decide on the last drink before he dies it would be a shot of Pedro Ximénez, also called PX, poured over some vanilla ice cream.
Following his lead, Philips offered another top way to use the high-end sherry: a spoonful of PX in a Caol Ila single malt whiskey, made with bitters, a little water and sugar.
The 17 bartenders competing in round one – the first of three scheduled for the coming weeks – pulled out all the stops to impress the judges. The first round hinged on the “bar-chef” theme. Contestants had to pair a cocktail appropriately with an appetizer.
Al-Mandaloun’s chef prepared the canapes specified by each bartender, who had two minutes in front of the judges to whip up from scratch their complementary concoction.
Some were a flurry of showmanship, pulling out dry ice to make smoking vapors around their cocktail or torching piles of sugar into caramelized garnish.
Others highlighted unusual ingredients such as jasmine-infused sugar syrup, tangy sumac spice and homemade caramel wine syrup.
The two top scorers from Wednesday’s competition will join four more winners from the upcoming two rounds. The six will compete in a final event to name Lebanon’s top bartender and send the lucky winner off to be tested on the international stage.
The competition – both internationally and locally – aims to give bartenders here and abroad a means to highlight their talents. To win even at the national level has proven a life-changing experience.
Last year’s competition winner Varia Dellalian, who worked as bartender at Momo at the Souks, went on to travel all over the world – from Calcutta to Dubai – and became a renowned mixologist.
Paying tribute to the craft, Hidetsugu said that a top bartender should be able to let his patron taste the drink before he even takes a sip from it: “You want to put it in the mouth before it even touches the lips.”
Beirut Espresso Martini
- 1 shot of Ciroc
- 20 ml of cold espresso
- 15 ml arak
- 15 ml sugar syrup
Pour ingredients into a hard shaker. Fill shaker with ice and shake. Pour into a martini glass through a double strainer to catch any coffee grounds.
Recipe presented by Tim Philips
The Moscow Mule was invented in the 1940s using the fiery taste of ginger beer. Ginger beer, a carbonateddrink made from ginger and sugar, is all but nonexistent in Lebanon. Even its milder cousin ginger ale rarely makes an appearanceon grocery store shelves. Guest judge Tim Philips, visiting from Australia, demonstrated a way to make this cross-cultural drink from scratch using pear juice, ginger and a little innovation: a whipped-cream dispenser.
- 1 shot of vodka
- Splash of lime juice
- Ginger beer
Pour vodka and lime juice into a cocktail glass full of ice cubes. Fill remaining space with whipped ginger beer. Mix slightly and add more ginger beer or ice as needed.
To make ginger beer:
Mix equal parts of fresh pear juice and freshly juiced ginger. Pour juices into a stainless steel whipped-cream dispenser.
Recipe presented by Tim Philips