The Chivas Masters is now in its fifth fabulous year. And it’s the competition for those bartenders who appreciate that their craft is about so very much more than the ability to make great drinks. Of course, the Chivas cocktails they make have to be creative, delicious and showcase the unique aspects of the spirit, but competitors also have to be prepared to be challenged in all sorts of other ways, like demonstrating great presentation skills, showing a desire to break new ground and an ability to motivate a team.
At last year’s Global Final in Tokyo the finalists were privileged to join masterclasses with the likes of Dré Masso (former director of the Potato Head Group Bali and worldwide cocktail mentor), Chris Lowder (spirits evangelist and New York’s Rising Star Bartender 2015), Iain Griffiths (hospitality industry pioneer and co-founder of Mr Lyan), Micah Melton (beverage director Aviary Chicago and New York and renowned ice chef) and Rogerio Igarashi Vaz (owner of Tokyo’s Tram and Trench). And all under the ever-watchful eye of Global Ambassador Max Warner. They were also privileged to experience the rich culture of Tokyo and its iconic bars, but most of all they were there to compete. And they were put through their paces, big time.
Amongst the Global Finalists was Rhys Wilson. As the Chivas Masters UK Winner 2017 he joins an elite community that includes Chelsie Bailey (Winner 2016), Josh Reynolds (Winner 2015, who also claimed the Global Title, no less) and Ali Reynolds (Winner 2014).
Here, we catch up with Rhys as he shares his Chivas Masters journey.
When and where did you start bartending?
Four Seasons Hotel, Sydney, Australia back in early 2007.
What other bars have you worked at and where are you working now?
I’ve worked at Callooh Callay, London, then Potato Head, Jakarta, The Library, London, and I’ve just finished at Happiness Forgets where I was general manager for a little over three years. I’m currently in Cartagena, Colombia, where I’m starting up a small drinks agency with Megs Miller and Dré Masso. Our ambition is to help grow the industry and work on some cool projects with a focus on family, culture and community.
There are a lot competitions these days, what was it about Chivas Masters that made you want to enter?
The Chivas Masters, in my opinion, is one of very few competitions that tests the complete bartender. Not only did we have to showcase multiple drinks and our creative skills in a variety of different challenges, but it also meant delivering under pressure, not just once but time and time again. On top of this I wanted to harness the ethos and principles of this great whisky, brotherhood and community.
How did you approach the UK Final?
I tried to take it one round at a time and remember that each round was one story within my entire journey. I used a few tools to reset myself after each round, like changing clothes each time, to help reflect each drink and put myself in the zone of that story.
What did it feel like to win the UK Final and know you would be representing the UK at the Global Final?
It was so cool to see different bartenders shine in various rounds in the UK Final, culminating with the third round in front of a crowd of 200 people. All eight bartenders absolutely brought it. There was well and truly a feeling that anyone of us could take home the trophy. After we had presented our final cocktail a few people from the crowd approached me, before the winner announcement, to tell me how much they enjoyed my drink. It’s always gratifying when a guest enjoys what you put out and that reminded me that win or lose, it was worth all the hard work because people enjoyed my drinks. But to then be crowned the winner, by a group of judges I have a lot of respect for, was also a huge deal, it meant feeling at a point in my career that I was ready to perform at a global level, amongst the best in the world.
What was taking part in the Global Final in Tokyo like?
Tokyo was incredible. I feel like I only got the tip of the iceberg, but it truly is an incredible place. The competition was tough, intense, with long days that flew by and whilst, of course, I was there to win, it weirdly never felt competitive. We all became so close that we genuinely just wanted each other to do amazingly and nail each round as best we could. It sounds bizarre and a cliche, but its true, and whoever would go on to win would well and truly deserve it. And Atsushi Suzuki [Chivas Masters Global Winner 2017] certainly did.
What did you learn from the Chivas Masters journey?
A lot about myself and even more about the world. I learnt that there’s so much more information out there that I want to soak up to help develop me as a bartender. So many ideas, thoughts, opinions and preferences of style and service. Everything is relevant and there are so many paths to achieving the same goals. It reminded me to never sit on my hands and be content but to continue to work towards perfection.
How has taking part in the competition affected your career?
Hugely. It has helped me appreciate the long term commitment to excellence. We often have short attention spans in this business and meeting people who had spent many years in their bar, working towards their goals was so admirable to see. It made me massively appreciate my time at Happiness Forgets and feel proud of my hard work and tenure. The other side of that is it reinstated my sense of adventure and the drive to seek more worldly information for my career.
What advice would you give to bartenders entering the Chivas Masters?
You’ve got to commit. If you approach it lazily you simply won’t win, because it will show in your presentations. Do it for the right reasons, remember that we do what we do for the benefit of an audience, not for our own egos, but for them.
How would you sum up Chivas Masters in one sentence?
Watch highlights from the Chivas Masters UK final 2017
Read more about the Chivas Masters UK 2018
For full details of how to enter the Chivas Masters 2018 visit chivas.com/chivasmasters/thechallenge
UK applications are open until 31st March 2018. Entrants must be available to attend the UK Final 3 May 2018 and the Global Final 24-29 June 2018.