I’ve written about Copenhagen
before and talked about the amazing cocktail scene that is developing there, so when the Copenhagen Cocktail Club said they were hosting a big competition and would I like to help judge it, I jumped at the chance. ‘The Battle of Scandinavia’
would see teams from Sweden and Denmark fight it out to be crowned the best bartenders in all of Scandinavia. My first impression was that this would be a pretty special event and I wasn’t disappointed!
If you follow us on facebook or twitter you’ll have picked up a few hints about what happened in Copenhagen; rickshaw racing through the city centre, a bartender in a blouse making 17th century drinks, a flamingo named Carlos, the son of God performing miracles and a man wearing a fez… oh and even some people making really good cocktails. Well this is just a glimpse into the fun side of what was a significant and challenging competition; you know that bartenders are taking things seriously when they turn down tequila shots for fear of ruining their palates!
The Battle of Scandinavia was designed to challenge every aspect of bartending skill, from blind tasting spirits and cocktails, creating and balancing drinks to a written test of cocktail and spirits knowledge; in other words physical and mental challenges that would showcase technique, ability to improvise and customer interaction, all culminating in a theatrical presentation of three signature cocktails. This was about finding the best team of bartenders from each country and really putting them through their paces!
You see Blondie, Spaniard and Yarek from the Copenhagen Cocktail Club, along with Bjorn and Richard Chille Man from the Cocktail Club of Sweden had the idea for this comp almost a year ago, but needed to raise some significant funds to get it off the ground. From the outset they were insistent that any sponsor brand would have to abide by the rule that this competition was to be unbranded and open; competitors would be free to use any products they wanted to and there was to be no obvious branding at all, they had decided that this would be a competition for bartenders, by bartenders. The problem is that companies paying out big money for a comp generally want a lot of visibility for their products and prefer to plaster their logo over everything they can, so getting the cash without the branding was a pretty hard task.
Putting on a competition isn’t a cheap or easy thing, especially when you need to host qualifying rounds in more than one country and fly bartenders and judges to Copenhagen for the final. Fortunately (and after much negotiation) CCC came to an agreement with Bacardi, who realised that this is just the sort of event that nurtures talent and promotes innovation, so is a real benefit to the drinks industry. Their generosity in supporting this comp and their willingness to push aside brand recognition, in order to help get this project off the ground, is a credit to their vision. It seems to me that competitions like this, that are good for the industry need to happen and deserve to be supported by big brands.
So with sponsorship in place and (non Scandinavian) judges lined up the real work began. Bartending groups were contacted in Finland and Norway and they were invited to take part, but sadly Finland felt they weren’t ready to compete at this level yet and Norway wanted to be paid to participate! Once the buzz and chatter started though, they realised that this could be a great showcase competition, but by then it was too late. So here it is in black and white; Norway and Finland, the challenge has been issued for next year to step up and get involved! Expand your knowledge, push your boundaries and make sure you show up to the 2012 Battle of Scandinavia… show the world that you have great bartenders too!! I really hope to see four countries battling it out next year.
With Sweden and Denmark on board, the two cocktail clubs organised regional heats in which bartenders competed for a place in their national team. Each team was to be made up of just three bartenders, so competition to secure a spot in the final and represent their nation was fierce. The heats were amazing comps in their own right and gave a hint as to how the grand final was going to go off and to the skills that were going to be on display. Bartenders gave everything they had to prove that they were the best their country has to offer and in the end Erik, Robert and Mathin won through for Sweden, with Nick, Andy and Terkel representing Denmark. The pride and expectations of there respective nations would weigh heavy on their shoulders when they finally confronted each other in Copenhagen on the 20th of Feb 2011.
THIS ISN’T A BATTLE, IT’S ALL OUT WAR!
When the format for the two-day competition was explained it was pretty clear that this would be one of the most challenging comps these six bartenders had ever faced. This wasn’t a battle, it was five battles that would have to be fought in order to win this war! There was friendly rivalry from the outset, but both teams recognised that they were facing strong competition, and watching them every step of the way were the three judges: myself, David Cordoba (the Global Brand Ambassador for Bacardi), and Marian Beke (an internationally recognised bartender currently heading up the team at Nightjar in East London).
The first test for the teams was a two-hour written exam covering all aspects of drinks knowledge. Sections from the exam included cocktail history, knowledge of various spirit categories, beer, wine and finally distillation processes and history. The challange had been put together by the two cocktail clubs with a view that no one should be able to answer all the questions and as it turned out the highest score on the day was 73% by Erik Anderson of team Sweden. Having read the questions I was just glad that the judges weren’t required to sit this exam! Here are some examples of the sort of knowledge they were expected to have:
88 year old bartender Don Javier Delgado Corona from Tequila, Mexico is world famous for his drinks Batanga and la Paloma, what is the name of his bar?
What are the ingredients in the Secret Cocktail and what name is it better known by today?
What six cocktails did David Embury refer to as ‘the six classics’?
Name 3 European rum brands and their country of origin
How many categories of gin are there in the EU regulations?
In which countries are you allowed to add fruit based wine such as sherry or port to the final whisky/whiskey blend? How much are you allowed to add?
What is the minimum percentage of rye for production of Canadian Rye Whiskey for the domestic market?
Early production of applejack was made using a very particular distillation method, what is the name of this method and explain how it works
What was the first brand of pilsner, and where is it from?
How does the distillation method ‘bagnomaria’ work?
You get the idea… a pretty high standard of all-round knowledge was needed to score well, and just to make it interesting the teams were not told their scores until the end of the competition, so no one knew who had taken the lead, but as it turned out there was less than 1% difference between the two teams. For the judges, this was just the first hint of how close this race was going to be!
A SHOT IN THE DARK
The next 2 challenges both involved an element of blind tasting, putting the competitors palates to the test as well as their knowledge of spirits and cocktails. The first test was the ‘Treasure Hunt’ and after the seriousness of the written exam the organisers thought it might be fun to give each team (and the judges) their own rickshaws to pedal through the streets of Copenhagen on a bar safari searching for ingredients with which they would be expected to make and present an original cocktail.
To make things more interesting five bars were chosen for us to visit, and in each one five unmarked medicine bottles with droppers were presented to the teams. They had five minutes to taste and smell these samples using nothing but a teaspoon and their knowledge. After racing around these bars with barely enough time for the judges to drink a daiquiri in each, the teams had selected a total of seven ingredients from the 25 available. This was a test that not only pushed them to use and trust their senses but was also the first hint at how they worked as a team. After a hilarious race through the streets of Copenhagen, scaring pedestrians and drivers alike, and where team Sweden may have written off their vehicle after a spectacular crash, the teams were presented with their ingredients and given 10 minutes to discuss their cocktail ideas and come up with a cocktail.
They then had 5 minutes to present their original creation to the judges, who had grilled them throughout on their ideas and thought processes. Creating an exceptional drink in such a short time is tough, but the judges were looking for a simple drink presented well that would show their ability to balance ingredients. We were also looking for how the teams worked together, and while Sweden let Robert, their larger than life character, present a drink solo, team Denmark all got involved in presenting and making our drinks, with a three man shake off capping off a fine performance. It was small details like this that made a difference and Denmark edged ahead in this challenge
Once again the teams were not told the results, so at the end of day 1 they had no idea that they had won one section each and were neck and neck on points. We ended the day with great Argentine beef steaks at the fantastic Fuego restaurant, and then went on and sampled a few beverages until the small hours of the morning, although that may have just been the judges as many of the competitors were taking this comp seriously enough not to want to go into day two with a hangover and a suspect palate.
This was probably a smart move as the second day started with a blind tasting of cocktails. All the drinks were presented in a wine glass, ungarnished, and without the usual frames of reference, despite their obvious knowledge, it was surprisingly difficult for the bartenders to zero in on the exact drink in the glass. For example the Old Fashioned presented in a wine glass and finished with an orange twist (that was then discarded) made the bartenders think that maybe there was an orange liqueur in this drink. Seeing it without ice too made it look darker and more intense than you might expect, etc.
Extra points were available if teams could name the exact spec used, and even more bonus points if they could name brands too. It all sounds relatively simple, but trust me this was a test not only of palate and knowledge but was also a lesson in trusting your instincts and going with your gut feeling. At the end of this event team Denmark edged ahead winning by just a hair (1 point). Reading this now team Sweden must be kicking themselves for not writing down Corpse Reviver No.2… it was so close that just the slightest slip on one section of one task meant the difference between winning and losing.
THE GRAND FINAL
With the competition still in the balance, the judges, teams and organisers grabbed lunch across the street from Zefside bar, where the final presentations were to be made. You could see the nerves amongst the competitors and with the final two sections making up 60% of the total scores both teams knew this was make or break time.
While the teams headed over to Zefside to set up the bar for their next challenges, the judges discussed what we expected to see in the next two sessions, and how we could make it tough for the competitors. First up was the True Originals contest, where each team member would take it in turns to demonstrate a different aspect of bartending skill to us. Each bartender was set one challenge, either ‘your first day on the job’ or ‘I think I’m turning Japanese’ or ‘my bar, my rules’. This was their chance to show us exactly how good they were at tending bar. Theoretical knowledge meant nothing in these challenges, it was time for them to step up and show some real practical skills. The judges were told to make things as difficult as possible for them to see how they react under pressure!
First up were Denmark and Terkel had the misfortune of being the new guy on the job. The rules were simple, both the judges and the bartender were presented a menu that had flavour descriptions but no ingredients listed. The bartender, despite being new to the bar, had to take charge and make it so that we wouldn’t be able to tell that he was new. The judges were told that if we could get them to say they were new they would instantly be disqualified and score no points… I’m not usually a difficult customer, but for this I would make an exception!
Although I tried everything I could to make him say that he was new to the job, Terkel pulled off a credible performance. Even when David and I tried to pile the pressure on by saying that we knew he was the new guy, his quick thinking reply to us was ‘you say that every time you come in here, I served you drinks last night’. His banter was good and he got a lot of laughs from the crowd, but when Sweden took their turn Robert excelled managing to turn the tables on the judges by deftly telling us that he was pleased to see us coming back to ‘the best gay bar in town’. He took control of the conversation and guided us through the menu (despite never having seen it before) and presented us with 3 drinks that matched the descriptions. Both bartenders scored well and despite our best efforts neither admitted to being new.
Next was the ‘I think I’m turning Japanese’ section, which was arguably the most challenging, as when it comes to Japanese bartending, presentation, precision and technique are essential. Of course when the judges ordered unexpected drinks and the ingredients for them proved hard to find both Nick from team Denmark and Erik from Sweden found it difficult to get into the flow they were looking for. Both did well under pressure and in the spotlight with cameras pointed at them, in a session where keeping your cool was vital, but both also said afterwards that they were annoyed not to have done better. Emotions were running high at this point and nothing we could say could persuade them that they had both done an exceptionally good job under very difficult circumstances. Winning meant everything to these two serious characters and neither wanted to let their team down!
Last was ‘my bar my rules’ where the bartender was put in charge of presenting us with drinks in a bar theme of his own choosing. Despite setting the scene, we were still allowed to be difficult customers if we wanted to, and it was left to them to take charge and make us feel like guests in their
Andy from Denmark was up first, welcoming us into his 17th century tavern and treating us to a knowledgeable display of drinks from that era. The hot ale flip was a highlight here as he produced a dodgy looking Russian tea heater and instantly created a frothing explosion of boiling ale in a split second, which was then thrown from tankard to tankard with egg, sugar, cream and rum. He even reacted well when unexpectedly asked to produce three drinks instead of the two he had planned although it was noted that he reverted to his tiki background (he works at Copenhagens Brass Monkey a tiki themed bar) by producing a ti’ punch, a drink from the right era, but probably not a favourite of tavern keepers in North America or Europe. Mathin was last up for the Swedish team and he transported us to Morocco and managed well when he too was asked for a third drink to fit his theme. In the end Sweden took this round once again by the slimmest of margins, but with more points awarded for this than for the previous challenges they had a narrow lead going into the final presentation.
To end the comp in style the teams were told to make a Theatrical Presentation that would embody an era of cocktails. They had to make three servings of three drinks, and make it as memorable an experience as possible. Despite winning the coin toss Sweden decided that it would only be right for the closing presentation of the competition to go to Denmark as it was their home turf. This was a generous gesture showing the friendship that had developed over the two-day event. Giving Denmark the chance to make the final impression on the judges could have been a real advantage in such a tightly fought contest.
So going first was team Sweden, who arrived in Hawaiian shirts and leis, and decked the bar out with all the trapping that might make you think tiki was the style they were going for… so how surprised where we when the cheesy music started and we realised that we were getting 80’s cocktails from every bartenders favourite film, Cocktail. If you haven’t seen Cocktail (as if…) the final scene sees Tom Cruise deliver a poem about drinks to a thirsty crowd, which Sweden had re-worked to fit around the competition. Drinks were produced by Erik and Mathin, while Rob got the crowd into full swing, as they cheered and laughed along with his rendition of the poem. The highlight was the take away bag with everything we might need to recover from a night celebrating their victory! It was a great presentation and set the bar pretty high… and left the crowd wondering how on earth the Danes were going to top it?
The only thing Denmark could do was pray to the heavens and call on divine intervention from the almighty himself! So as a cacophony of trumpets and drums erupted in the room and Team Denmark took to the bar dressed in robes, having set a candle lit alter before the judges it looked like a miracle might be within sight for them. We were treated to three drinks made using only ingredients that would have been commonly available during Jesus’ time. The first drink was a delicate julep made using arak and rose petal, presented in beautiful gold rimmed glasses. The second drink was made for us by Jesus himself (Nick from Copenhagen’s Ruby bar) who entered the bar parting the crowd like the red sea, and performed a miracle by transforming white wine into red wine… that’s pretty hard to beat! The room was full of cheers, even the Swedish bartenders who had come to support their team where on their feet. It was a great ending to an amazing competition. Well almost the end anyway.
All that remained was for the judges to agree a winner, so we retired to a café, ordered a beer and a shot and started to total up the scores. It makes things interesting when after two days, the combined scores from three judges comes out as a dead even tie. We debated the strengths and weaknesses of the teams, went over every detail, and in the end agreed that Denmark had taken three out of the five sections and had ended as a truly cohesive team, all three working seamlessly together. That being said Sweden had amazed us at times, and it really was so close that the result could have gone either way. Both teams should be proud for setting such a high standard for future generations of Scandinavian bartenders to step up to!
IT’S NOT ALL FUN AND GAMES
It’s fair to say that everyone involved had a blast during our time in Copenhagen (including Carlos the flamingo), but this competition has a serious side too; it’s a way for different countries to come together, share knowledge and ideas and showcase their skill as bartenders. I hope it will continue and in future years become the competition that all Scandinavian bartenders strive to be a part of. For that to happen it will need the support of a big brand such as Bacardi, but for it to be held in high esteem it needs to stay true to the original idea… a competition for bartenders, by bartenders!
There is talk of next year being hosted by Sweden if they can get the sponsorship they deserve, and everyone involved agreed that they really want Norway and Finland to be part of this comp too. I hope I will be able to look back and say that I was lucky to be involved in the early stages of what should become one of the most renowned and challenging competitions for future generations of bartenders.
Well done to all those who were involved but a special thanks to the guys from Copenhagen Cocktail Club and Cocktail Club Sweden for working so hard to produce an epic event. You have created something very special and very important and I’ll raise a glass to you and to all my new Scandinavian friends!