Above: Manachain with Compass Box founder and whisky maker, John Glaser
To the outside world, one cocktail competition is pretty much like any other: bartender makes fab-tasting cocktail, job done. Oh how little do they know. Sure, many a tasty drink is made and presented, with due reverence given to the brand in question, naturally. But the best contests are the ones that go beyond the tried-and-tested format; they’re the ones that push bartender’s creativity beyond the glass.
Compass Box The Circle falls into this particular camp. Although Compass Box has been shaking up preconceived ideas about whisky for almost 20 years, this is only the second time round for its global cocktail competition, The Circle. “It’s always been something that we’ve wanted to do but we’ve never really had the manpower or the bandwidth to execute a programme in the way that we wanted to up ‘now,” explains Keiran Cusker, Compass Box Trade Marketing Manager.
The ‘how’, was a big factor too. You can’t be all daring and different in your manifesto then roll out a cocktail competition with a tried and tested format. “It’s a bit like that Picasso quote: ‘[I] begin with an idea and it becomes something else’. It started as a way to engage top bartenders from the world’s leading bars to become a more of a community of likeminded creators,” Keiran continues. “We want them to inspire and be inspired, with Compass Box being the vehicle for them to do so.”
From our vantage point, they’re doing an ace job. Better still, they’re doing it in their own inimitable style – just like founder John Glaser did when started the business from his kitchen table coming up for two decades ago. He and the team that work with him don’t call themselves distillers or blenders or even craftspeople for that matter; they’re whisky makers. And the place where they make said whisky is described as a whisky workshop. Think of it as a hub to spark the imagination. Little wonder why it resonates so well with forward-thinking bartenders.
Over the five days given over to this year’s contest (three made up of challenges and the grand final; the other two to simply chill and discover London), the seven competitors had to showcase their creativity in a number of ways. But before we get to the nuts and bolts, time to introduce the seven very different, extremely talented finalists:
Rob Scott from The Monarchy, Singapore
Manachain Monaghan, Below Stairs, Leeds
Zana Möhlmann, Super Lyan, Amsterdam
Paul Mace, Lilith & Sons, Barcelona
Sacha Mecocci, Fusion, Florence
Kayleigh Speck, The East End, Providence
Omef Ganor, Mozner Bar, Tel Aviv
IN THE GLASS
Share & Enjoy – Or what we like to call getting to know you time…
This took place at Three Sheets, overseen by bar manager and last year’s Compass Box The Circle winner Rosey Mitchell. To ease the finalists into the comp, they had to make and present four drinks to share amongst the group, choosing from one for the following Compass Box expressions: Hedonism, Oak Cross, The Spice Tree, The Peat Monster or The Story of Spaniard, plus their choice of five other ingredients.
Tradition is only half the story – Or what we like to call jooshing up the Scotch category…
We get it, whisky is a seriously good spirit but that doesn’t mean that it has to be taken so seriously that it can only be enjoyed by the pipe and slippers brigade. Our finalists certainly got the memo on that front and delivered all manner of cool, clever and very tasty drinks which showed off the beauty and versatility of Compass Box whiskies.
Signature Highball – Or what we like to call the second best way to showcase the beauty of a bloody good whisky (other than sipping it neat, natch)…
Sounds easy enough but as any bartender worth their salt will tell you, a seemingly simple drink can be one of the hardest to create. Not that you’d know that from the exquisite drinks that we tasted during this competition. High fives for the seven Compass Box highballs that were served up for us to cogitate and digest in this particular round.
IN THE BOTTLE:
Three challenges to demonstrate that our finalists have a nose for blending whisky. The first was where they got to showcase their personality in a bottle by creating their own blend, the second saw them deconstructing a specially created Compass Box blend in a closest to the pin challenge, and then again in a heat where they had to create a blend of Scotch and calvados – just like John.
Lastly, there was a design challenge. Here’s where the finalists teamed up with a designer to work on a label that captured the characteristics of their bespoke blends, including the mood they wanted to convey by way of chosen fonts, colours and imagery.
It was an intense, extremely character-building three days but each component was there for a purpose. “We get them ready to essentially work as a member of our team,” explains Keiran. “We look at the skill sets that we seek in our estimating, marketing and sales teams – they have to have aspects of those three business units and be able to really create and sculpt their brand. That’s why there’s a bit about them being creative and another element that takes them out of their comfort zone of serve creation. We also include whisky making parts that are aimed to test their palates and sensitivity – do they understand how to add complexity of flavour, can they identify what is driving a particular mouthfeel? Those kinds of things. That’s how we go about devising the programme.”
Manachain Monaghan was his year’s winner. His drinks and blending styles were obviously a huge factor in the result but his calming, quietly confident presentations shone through at every opportunity, as did his synergistic way of thinking in line with the brand. A particular highlight for us was his Tradition is only half the story challenge where he presented Compass Box Artist Blend in simple wooden cups to set up a feast for the senses. Not only did he create five different essences to echo five different moods, he accompanied each with a carefully chosen soundtrack and website. Absolutely perfect.
Manachain’s Compass Box The Circle blend will be available in Spring 2020 but before then, we had a chat with him to get his impressions of the comp.
We’ve seen you in a number of competitions but this one really seemed to resonate with you. What was it that appealed?
I liked that there were so many elements to the competition – so many things to think about. It’s not as simple as making a cocktail, it called on us to show that we can balance a drink, create a concept for a bar as well as learning lots of new things, like whisky blending.
What did you know about Compass Box before entering the competition?
Oak Cross was the first blended whisky I came across and it really opened my eyes to the category. I loved the branding and style of the company but it was really only when I entered the competition that I started to really dig into the brand a bit more and begun to understand the openness they have. Since then I’ve started getting a little bit nerdy about it!
How much do you know a Compass Box now?
A lot! Compass Box have done a really good job to get across what they’re about with their branding but having had the opportunity to go inside the blending room, that’s when you realise how authentic it all is; this isn’t clever marketing, it’s what that brand is really about. What appeals to me is that it’s not just the passion but the expertise behind the brand – it really hammers home how special what they’re doing is.
Be honest, did you think you would win the competition?
No. One of the things I loved about the competition is that there are so many different challenges, as well as they fact that Compass Box are so transparent about the way they score each round – you know that there’s 15% of marks for this and 20% marks for that – that was nice and really relaxed me. It allowed me to think that I really liked my serves and I trusted myself in the whisky blending, so as long as I was consistent in all of the challenges, I should be in with a shout.
That said, the other competitors were very strong: Omef and Rob spend their holidays visiting whisky distilleries and everyone had such great presentations – so in answer to your question, no, I never felt that I would win.
There were quite a few challenges over the few days, which was your favourite?
Coming up with the concept for our whisky blend, where we got to work with a designer. I particularly love the fact that it’s not simply a case of blending your whisky, then it gets bottled up with the brands’ label and your name on it; you actually see a fully fledged product that goes out to the world. With this competition you get the opportunity to sit with a designer and go through all of these ideas that are swimming around in your head. In this particular challenge, I knew what I wanted to do but to see it come to life and to stand up and share my vision with everybody in the room was very rewarding.
And what about your favourite part of the whole competition?
Without sounding cheesy, it was meeting my fellow competitors, seeing their ideas and the bonding over this thing we all love called whisky. I also really enjoyed meeting the Compass Box team. Everyone made us feel very special, we were really spoiled the whole time. In fact, I loved the relaxed nature of this whole competition – it felt like planning something new with my team at the bar.
Tell us what happened on the day after the announcement, after the high-fiving and celebrations the night before?
I went to blending room and sat with John and James to try to get the feeling behind my whisky. It was interesting because they never asked me about flavours – it was much more about the feel. For instance, they asked questions like where I thought the perfect place to enjoy it would be, things like that. It was really cool to think about it that way.
I always think of flavours in terms of colours and used coral in my brand design and that’s very much the colour that I want the flavour to be and John latched on to that. I love the fact that they really wanted to create it around my thought process rather than them telling me how to blend a whisky. They were trying to get into my head to help me create the blends – it’s very exciting!
What happens next?
We essentially created a couple of drafts which James then bottled for me to take away. He told me not drink them for a coupe, of days, ‘wait until you’re somewhere that you love being and want to have a whisky and see how it feels then’, those were his exact words. After I’ve fed back, James will come up with some tweaks on the two blends that we’ve created. After that I’ll go down to Compass Box a few times to work on it until I’m happy with the final blend.
We can’t wait to see and taste the finished product. Until then, any tips for anyone thinking of taking part next year?
I’d recommend everyone to do it – there’s a great atmosphere and it never felt competitive. It’s really well organised and the competitors are at forefront of the team’s minds. Just go for it!
Big shout out to Russell Burgess and Daniel Kaizen from Wet + Dry for keeping things running smoothly.
Find out more at compassboxwhisky.com