Lord knows how this year’s Chivas Masters Global Finalists must be feeling one week on from the start of their incredible adventure because we’re not ashamed to admit that we’re absolutely shattered. Never mind the World Cup, who knew that merely watching bartenders at the top of their game could be so intense?
Their physical journey started at the national finals in their respective countries – all 21 of them, taking in the stalwarts like the United Kingdom, USA and France who have participated in the competition since it launched five years ago; to the five countries who are new to the fold. We’re looking at you Peru, Switzerland, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Thailand. The mental side of the journey was called on for the entire five-days of this year’s competition exploring community and sustainability.
The finalists with their hosts at Meldrum House
Yes, it started pretty relaxed (on the surface anyway) but then again, why wouldn’t it? We were in the glorious setting of Meldrum House in Aberdeenshire with the weather on its very best behaviour (something of a shocker in this part of the world but all the better for showing off the surroundings to best effect). There was food, there were drinks (Chivas based of course), plus a tasting with Colin Scott, Master Blender no less. There was also exceptionally good company, including the bartenders, their market hosts and previous Chivas Masters winners Josh Reynolds, Alex Millan and Atsushi Suzuki. Matt Whiley one of the judges was there too, as was the ace production and marketing team, plus last year’s UK winner Rhys Wilson in the role of host for the whole event. Oh, and we got to join them for the whole shebang. Lucky us!
None of us will forget this day in a hurry. That’s down to the amazing hospitality of Ghillie Basan and her incredible children, daughter Yazzie and son Zeki. For a few short hours they let us into their much-cherished stone croft home, perched 1,600 ft up in the Cairngorms, and opened our eyes to a true world of generosity, sustainability and community.
It was the perfect setting for Matt Whiley to talk us through the ethos of his minimal waste-focused bar Scout. If the bartenders weren’t fired up by the descriptions of his house ferments, zero waste cocktail ingredients and tales of getting creative with what is available locally for the sustainability part of the competition, we doubt they ever will be.
Into the hills with Zeki
Which linked in nicely to the next part of the morning where Zeki aka the young Scottish Tarzan took us yomping through the hills with the sole intention of getting us to open our eyes to appreciate nature’s larder. While walking he was always on alert, disappearing into bushes if he spotted something that tickled his fancy, or stopping in his tracks to get us to smell and taste a plant we would have otherwise walked past. His enthusiasm and lust for nature was infectious. We would have been content with that to be honest but to top it all off, it was back to the house for Ghillie’s lipsmackingly good mezzo-style lunch, with Zeki throwing some locally caught wild rabbit and fish onto the coals for good measure.
With Colin Scott at the Strathisla Distillery
The afternoon was equally memorable but for completely different reasons. A walk around the oldest distillery in Speyside, having a go at creating our own whisky in the brand new Blending Room with the master Colin Scott, plus a wee dram of Chivas Extra finished in a first-fill sherry cask at cask strength in the Chivas Regal cellar – what’s not to like about that? After dinner and our pick of some absolutely stunning bottlings in Linn House, it was time to head back to Meldrum House.
Some might say that the first challenge of the competition was being up and ready to leave for the airport at 4.45am. It was a harsh start to the day but hey, as generous in spirit as the Chivas team are, there was a competition to be won after all. Once checked into the Ace Hotel it was straight into the first workshop, a brilliant talk packed with invaluable tips and insights from judge number two: JJ Goodman, joint owner of the London Cocktail Club.
You’d think at this point there would have been time for a rest? Not a chance. It was straight into challenge number one. There’s no pressure like getting straight down to business, right? In some ways this should have been an easy one because this task was where the competitors presented the signature drinks that earned them their place in the final. But then this was the first time they’d be in front of the people who would decide their fate in the competition. Not to mention, the first time that they’d got to check out each other’s moves.
Practice makes perfect, the bartenders test their In-star appeal
One challenge down, another to go – the focus? Being social. Enter Laura May Coope, social media guru and Bea Bradsell, London Cocktail Week Bars Ambassador sharing their expertise on the importance of Instagram and how important a tool it is for driving business. Then before you could say “my name’s David Bailey”, the competitors were tasked with creating an Insta-friendly drink for the Looking Good London round.
Some of the produce from the larder
While they could use ingredients from the fully-stocked larder, they weren’t judged on taste – this was an unapologetic fur coat and no knickers challenge. As well as aesthetics though, they would be assessed on everything from their use of hashtags, to the composition of the photo and the traction their image picked up on social media. Very cool, not to mention incredibly useful.
With sustainability being one of the key themes of the comp, Matt Whiley talking about his root to flower philosophy and Zeki showing how he lives off the land it was only a matter of time before the contestants would have to get their zero-waste hats on. Matt introduced this challenge, pointing out various ferments which he’d brought in from his bar along with waste ingredients saved from the hotel’s kitchen and bar over the past few days. Their drinks didn’t have to go 100% down the leftover route. Competitors were allowed to use products from the larder as well and naturally, Chivas Regal played a role in the mix.
Matt Whiley introduces the Live off the land challenge
The bartenders were divided into seven teams of three and had 45 minutes to come up with a Live off the Land serve. And a mighty fine job they did too. Not only did the drinks have a strong concept, taking in everything from wasted water to championing local ingredients, they were hand on heart delicious. That’s not just our opinion but the judges thoughts as well.
That was the first bit, followed in quick succession by the nail-biter – who had made it through to the top three? Step forward Arron Grendon from Thailand, Filip Jancárek from Czech Republic and Louis Lebaillif from France, they impressed the judges with the balance of their drinks as well as their stories and all-round awesomeness. Here’s where the story would end in most cocktail competitions but the Chivas Masters does things differently. Besides, remember the theme for this year? It’s about community, generosity and collaboration, and as brothers James and John Chivas liked to say, success always tastes better shared.
So behind locked doors Arron, Filip and Louis picked out the six competitors who would help them build a pop-up bar, in other words a community – somewhere that guests would want to hang out and come back to again and again. They had less than a day to come up with a name, concept, branding including logo and menus, plus drinks and styling of the bar; the aim here was to create the kind of vibe that would draw the guests in and make them want to return.
This challenge was where everything they’d learned over the past few days would come together: the cultural experience from Ghillie, live off the land and foraging activity with Zeki, social media skills with Bea and Laura May and sustainability with Matt, culminating with the creating your own bar talk from JJ. Sound tough? Damn straight it was. Luckily there was help on hand with a graphic designer to crack on with the branding, a stylist to help with the sourcing of furniture and props, while the bright minds at Create Cocktail could assist with anything bar related; each team was also assigned a previous Chivas Masters winner to help keep them on track.
Introducing the teams:
One Night In Bangkok
Arron Grendon (Thailand)
Angel Solorzano (Peru)
Martin Suaya (Argentina)
Kentaro Wada (Japan)
Yuta Inagaki (Hong Kong)
Rick Marson (Netherlands)
Louis Macpherson (Australia)
Chivas Master winner:
Filip Jancárek (Czeck Republic)
Valentino Longo (USA)
Alex Godfrey (UK)
Bartosz Konieczny (Poland)
German Gochev (Bulgaria)
Alex Sepulchro (Brazil)
Oscar Jesus Armenta Garcia (Mexico)
Chivas Masters winner:
Louis Lebaillif (France)
Michael Chen (China)
Stefano Ruocco (UAE)
Fabián Ramos (Cuba)
Julio Ruiz (Dominican Republic)
Houssam Bennani (Morocco)
Chloé Merz (Switzerland)
Chivas Masters winner:
Ideas down on paper day five was where the teams had to bring the whole lot to life. Cue nerves, possibly panic and a day purely fuelled on adrenalin. The venue for the evening was Oval Space, a perfectly blank canvas for the three Chivas Masters bars to be showcased.
At 9am the bartenders were dropped off at the venue, leaving them to get on with the job in hand: create a bar that would tick all off the boxes with the four judges. Oh, and did we mention that 200 paying guests, media and friends of Chivas would be arriving later that evening – not just for a party but to cast their vote for what they thought should be the inning bar? Just a little curveball to keep things interesting…
What did they have to play with? Good question. Each team was given £2,500 and allocated a 4-metre bar unit with fascia and back bar, plus an additional 2 metre x 5 metre space around the bar to use as they saw fit. That’s the key stuff, they also had a local driver to take two of them shopping around London – while the other five were left to pick up whatever props and/or ingredients were needed locally, as well as dressing the bar, prepping the drinks and generally getting everything shipshape ready for opening.
Fast-forward to 6.30pm and where what looked like chaos, organised or otherwise, had previously reigned, three amazing bars had sprung into life. Each had a distinct personality, two exceptional drinks and a team ready and waiting to welcome their guests. Louis and his team created Broken Bench, the ultimate boy’s pad, complete with retro armchairs, old school lamps, as well as a foosball table, television showing the England vs. Belgium game and of course, a broken bench.
Filip and co. went for a whisky lounge feel for their roped off bar, Brotherhood (worth mentioning the ‘her’ they cleverly highlighted in their illuminated sign). These were the only ones who wore something to unify them as a team – Primark’s finest grey waistcoats and individual, short sleeved-shirts.
Arron meanwhile recreated a night market in Thailand, or more specifically Bangkok, with his One Night in Bangkok, a recreation of the carnival-like atmosphere of night markets in the area, complete with twinkling lights, a hotchpotch of paraphernalia, T-shirts hung from the back bar and the drinks menus displayed in CD cases.
At the end of the evening after the scores from the judges and public were added together it was Arron who is now joining Masa Urushido, Josh Reynolds, Alex Millan and Atsushi Suzuki in the Chivas Masters hall of fame. With his wonderful smile, easy disposition and generous spirit he’ll fit in very well. For our interview with Arron, check in later.