World Class GB, the finals in brief: one new venue (the swanky, state-of-the-art Johnnie Walker Princes Street in Edinburgh); two new challenges (The Singleton Social Challenge where the competitors devised a celebratory drink and memorable occasion to pair with a dish created by Chef Mark Moriarty, and the Johnnie Walker Flavour Challenge where for the first time in the history of the competition, the finalists worked in pairs), and three of the 10 competitors driving up north together to fly the flag for Birmingham. And just in case you haven’t heard, team Brum drove back home with extra luggage: the highly coveted World Class GB trophy which was awarded to Matt Arnold.
There were tears (in a good way), there were hugs, there was laughter but most of all there was respect – respect for themselves, respect for each other and the teams who brought the equal parts exciting and nail-biting event together – Jo Last and Pippa Guy from World Class, Sweet + Chilli on ops and Chorus on logistics. Who knows, there may even have been some respect for the judges who had the ridiculously hard task of singling out a winner – and believe us, it was tough, as Maura Milia Lawrence from the Connaught Bar; Adrian Michalcik, World Class Global Bartender of the Year 2022; Iain McPherson, head honcho at Edinburgh’s favourite Panda & Sons; ourselves and chef Mark Moriarty will attest. But we got there in the end and a jolly good winner we have too.
We spoke to Matt the morning after his career-changing night before to get his thoughts on realising his dream: representing Great Britain and his beloved Birmingham at the World Class Global Finals in São Paulo in less than 90 days.
Congratulations Matt, you absolutely smashed it! Let’s start with you describing World Class in three words?
Communal, innovative, exciting.
How does it feel to be representing Birmingham as the World Class GB finalist?
[Long pause for composure] I’m just really happy it was one of the three of us from Birmingham. Yes, it’s a victory for me and I’m really proud of that but when Jacob [Clarke], Katie [Rouse] and myself were driving up to Edinburgh together, we said as long as one of us does it, we’ll be happy.
This is the second time that you’ve got to the World Class GB final, tell us about your journey?
World Class has always been right up there for me, it’s the pinnacle of what I wanted to push towards. When I was coming on to the scene, there were only two people from Birmingham who had made it to the World Class GB finals: Tommy Matthews and James Bowker. When I got the call in 2021, I became the third. It was surreal but that’s what gave me the fire to really go for it.
That said, I wasn’t ready for it the first time round, I was trying to do too much. But this year, everything just felt so natural and fluid, it’s been phenomenal. We opened Passing Fancies, won Best Bar in the Midlands & East Anglia and Best New Bar at the CLASS Bar Awards, were nominated for Best New International Bar at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, then last week I got engaged and this week I won World Class! It’s been absolutely crazy.
But going back to your question of where did my journey start: it was looking at what the city had done before and really feeling that I wanted to put my two-pence into it that’s really driven me.
How do you describe yourself and your bartending style?
Approachable. It’s an outdated mindset that every bartender trying to get to the top of their game has to wear a white blazer or three-piece suit. When we opened Passing Fancies, we wanted to be high-end – so much thought goes into everything we do but that doesn’t mean that we can’t make the whole thing super-accessible. We have drinks that really push the boundaries in terms of innovation, fresh flavours and modern-day techniques but we showcase them without the fuss. We pride ourselves on being high-end but approachable.
Who or what inspires you?
Mostly people – both good and bad. It would be really easy for me to say that my inspiration is Tommy or people who have been on this journey with me since day one. But I’ve also found inspiration in knowing what not to do. Let’s face it, the past three years have been challenging for hospitality. My inspiration doesn’t just come from the drinks development or World Class side of things but as a bar operator, what inspires me is the fact that we have a team who are happy at work. All of our staff are salaried, have a four-day working week and don’t work more than 40 hours. As a result, I’m surrounded by this incredible team who really push me.
Who nurtures you?
Without a shadow of a doubt, it’s Eve [Green, his fiancé and joint director at Passing Fancies]. It sounds really silly for me to say on the back of just winning World Class GB but my proudest moment of this whole competition has been when Eve was awarded Challenge Champion for her amazing work in the Chase Challenge, during the Top 50. That’s the most emotional I’ve ever been – I cried my eyes out!
Who or what motivates you?
Coming from the Midlands, I’m so bored with all of the attention being centred around London and Scotland. Bars like Schofields and Blinker in Manchester and Filthy XIII in Bristol are doing amazing things for bars outside of those places but I want to be at the forefront of pushing another city into the limelight. I want Birmingham to be considered one of the Meccas of cocktail culture; I want people to think that if they’re visiting London, Birmingham is only an hour away and they’ve got to go to Couch, visit Fox & Chance and come to Passing Fancies. That’s what motivates me.
Back to the competition: what was your favourite challenge?
There are two answers to that: the challenge that I’m happiest with was the Chase Challenge earlier on in the competition. That was the where we had to create a drink based on a modern day muse. Mine was inspired by AI and how it’s affecting the way we drink.
But without doubt my favourite overall challenge was the Johnnie Walker one that we did here at the Final. It wasn’t just about making a drink and presenting it in front of 70 guests, it was the whole process that both Lele Mensah and I went on while undertaking it. I couldn’t have been more confident or proud to stand next to him – it might sound cheesy but I feel like we’ve done so much and been through so much together, including me getting engaged and Lele welcoming a new addition to the family, that we’ve become so close. We’ve got a friendship that will last way beyond this competition. He’s like a brother.
And your favourite drink?
Definitely the AI serve that I created for the Chase Challenge. Whenever I’m presenting something, I want it to be new, different. To my mind, competitions are a platform for innovation. I try to be original with each of my serves. That means there’s a lot of risk involved but with a competition like this, I think they’re definitely worth taking.
What’s the one challenge that you’d like to re-do and why?
The Tanqueray Challenge – the first one that got us into the Top 100. Why? Because my execution wasn’t what I wanted it to be. It was very much in the heat of the moment and I forgot one or two of the major components. It’s not that I was disappointed but I know I could have done the whole thing better. I’d love the chance to do it again, so I could get it right for myself.
How do you prepare for such a major competition and the various stages of the journey?
A lot of it is a mental game. It can be very hard to keep your composure when the pressure is on but luckily, I’m more comfortable when I’m under pressure – it relaxes me in a funny kind of way; I know where I stand with it as it’s all black and white. If I don’t see the seriousness in something, I tend to be too lax.
The other big thing is the practice. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. I was in the bathroom talking to myself in the mirror for around four hours every day this week. I got to know the sight of my face pretty well!
How, if at all, has World Class changed you?
It’s given me more confidence. There’s something about going from the Top 100, to the Top 50, then the Top 10 with people like Barrie Wilson and Erik Lorincz telling you that your drinks were really good, that gives you a real boost. If nothing else, World Class has made me want to do even more as I’ve been validated by people I really look up to.
What’s the most important thing that you’ve learned about yourself since taking part in the competition?
Like most of us, I’ve struggled with imposter syndrome. I never think “I’ve got this!”, I’m more of a, “I’ll do myself proud”. But since competing in World Class I’ve learnt to back myself more.
What’s your favourite thing about the competition?
Definitely the people. I don’t feel like I’m going to São Paulo to compete for myself in the World Class Global Finals now, I’m competing for the other nine finalists as well. I’ll also be doing it for Jo [Last] and Pippa [Guy], everyone who’s put a ridiculous amount of hours into this competition, Birmingham and the whole of the UK, which makes me feel really fuelled. I can’t wait!
Any tips for next year’s finalists?
It’s easy to say, “have confidence etc” but that goes without saying. If I could pass on anything, it would be, when looking at the competition brief, see how far you can take it – this is the biggest cocktail competition in the world, so push yourself; don’t be scared to do something completely wacky. Take risks and have faith in yourself. Going back to that imposter syndrome that I mentioned before: it’s so easy to look at YouTube performances of previous World Class winners and think, “I could never do that; I don’t have that in me”, but that’s not true – 40% of getting here is not being afraid to take the risks. Competitions offer so much than winning – in fact, ‘competition’ is almost the incorrect name for it. Do it for the learning, friendships and connections, rather than the glory. Those are the most important things.
Matt Arnold will represent Great Britain in the World Class Global Finals taking place in São Paulo 25th to 28th September. See @worldclassgreatbritain for more details
Please raise your glasses for the remaining Top 10 Finalists:
Josh Linfitt – Ugly Butterfly, Cornwall
Alexander Taylor – Penny Royal, Cardiff
Emanuele Mensah – Lyaness
Danilo Frigulti – NoMad, London
Jacob Clarke – Couch, Stirchley
Katie Rouse – Couch, Stirchely
Hollie Bennetts – The Greenbank Hotel, Cornwall
Tom Fastiggi – Schofield’s Bar, Manchester
Michael Dylan Edwards – Liverpool
Photos: Ben Broomfield Photography