Covid eh? The various lockdowns that came as a result of it may have restricted our social interactions but they sure as hell haven’t thwarted creativity. If anything, the limitations of the past year or so have acted like a catalyst for innovation. Particularly in the drinks industry. The recent World Class GB Final is a case in point.
Let’s just start by reiterating something that we’re always saying to anyone who stands still long enough, bartenders are a clever lot. So are the machines that support them. If you were to have told us a few years ago that a cocktail competition of such status would be held virtually, we would have laughed in your face. But not only has it been done, the World Class team have carried it off in fine style.
We’re not saying that it was easy mind. Arranging a competition like this takes planning to the nth degree. However, with the combined forces of the Sweet & Chilli crew and World Class GB team running the show (big ups Jo Last and Pippa Guy), it was as challenging and exciting for the participants as it was for those of us watching them bring their cocktails and the stories behind them, to life.
Obviously it was different. We’d be lying if we said it wasn’t. Everyone had to adapt, and fast, to the new virtual way of doing things but do you know what? From our vantage point in judges corner, the format transposed pretty darned well.
Said judging ran over two days from the Covid secure setting of Nine Lives bar in Bermondsey. Day one saw World Class GB winner Cameron Attfield, Diageo GB Ambassadors Pippa Guy and Jason Clark, Dan Dove from Global Bartending and Andy Ives from BarLife UK assessing the Tanqueray No. TEN Alive With Freshness challenge. This was where the competitors were tasked with creating two drinks of contrasting tastes, both using one modifier. And naturally, both drinks had to be perfectly balanced.
On day two we swapped places with Andy to survey the many and varied talents displayed in The Scotch Box challenge. This was the time for Johnnie Walker Black Label and Talisker 10 to shine through via the competitors’ vision of their dream whisky bar, taking in everything from menu style, atmosphere, hosting skills and of course, drinks.
The first part of the brief called on them to create a carbonated welcome drink starring Johnnie Walker Black Label, while the second section saw them serving a Talisker 10-based cocktail to draw the evening to a close. As well as their cocktails, each competitor had to supply a box for the judges, with the requisite elements to create a memorable guest experience. On paper it may have seemed impossible to pull off but they did it with aplomb. Heck, they even had fun.
Enough with the background already, we’re sure you’re wondering how it all worked. The answer is, everything was arranged with military precision, from our Covid tests ahead of the event to the spacing of our seats at the venue. The competitors were socially distanced too, presenting to us via Zoom (what else?) From the comfort of their homes or behind an as yet to be reopened bar, (another reminder of these Covid times), they used the medium to best effect.
In truth it was a bit of a double act, with them making their drinks from their chosen location and Jo Last and the Sweet & Chilli team, recreating them to the exact specs which had been sent ahead. From a judges perspective, it was great – after each presentation, a drink and any accompanying props were placed in front of us. We then had time to consider its merits and could discuss our thoughts without being overheard by either the competitor or any guests. Win!
Speaking of wins, the winner announcement was made the next day via Facebook Live. And of the eight talented, very passionate, extremely inspiring competitors Mark McClintock took the top prize. Why? Everything just clicked – from the beautifully balanced drinks to his easy, relaxed style. Not that it was an easy decision mind, the other finalists sure gave him a run for his money. Stephanie Anderson, Murray Drysdale, Matt Arnold, Alexa Farrow, Stevie Kane, Kuba Korzynski and James Rawcliffe – we salute you too, you’re absolute super stars.
Now, over to Mark McClintock, Diageo World Class GB Bartender of the Year 2021, whoop!
Let’s start with what’s in your mind you decide you want to take part in World Class?
For me, it was the challenge, seeing how far I could go and where I stood in relation to everyone in the industry. To be fair, I didn’t think I’d get this far.
What’s so different about this particular competition? What does it mean to you?
It’s the biggest one isn’t it? It’s the hardest and most challenging cocktail competition to participate in, it really tests your skills from every side – from the drinks-making to how you communicate that. It’s not just about your presentation but your social media presence as well. It really does push you in very single way. Particularly in that last round where we had to conceptualise an entire bar!
And this year you had the additional challenge of being pushed in a virtual direction. What are the pros and cons of doing something like this in a virtual space?
As bartenders we live and breathe by our customers and our interactions with them and it’s the same in a competition environment. Usually you can have a conversation with the judges, which almost makes things easier and more comfortable. In this format you couldn’t have that interaction which was kind of scary in a way – you try to crack jokes and put some personality into your presentation but you have absolutely no clue how its being received.
But saying that, the pros of doing it virtually are absolutely massive. It totally changed my approach and got me thinking in a different way. I was writing scripts and running things through over and over again, timing it and going back – it was almost like recording a TV show.
Would you not have been working from a script and timing yourself when you prepare for competitions pre-Covid?
You do but when you do it in person, it’s different. You’re having a conversation with the judges and I invite them to ask questions and taste the ingredients, so you have to have the knowledge in your head ready to go but also adapt really quickly to the comments people make.
At what point did you realise it was going to be virtual and did it scare you, excite you, make you nervous? Or were you like: Bring it on, let’s go!
Last March when the bars were closed I thought that’s it, it’s not going to go ahead, the competition is over for this year. With good reason – there are more important things happening in the world right now. But I’m grateful that Diageo found a way to make it work, sending us all the bottles we needed and getting the competition going virtually, it gave us something to focus on which was really exciting. That said, when I first saw the format, I thought, ‘how is this going to work? How can we represent these cocktails, post them and bring them to life?’ But once I got into the swing of it, I absolutely loved it.
Did it bring out a another layer of creativity because you had to think completely differently?
One hundred percent. For instance in The Singleton round we had to create a memory and I was trying to think of things that I could do online – what I could do to make it different from anyone else. It was India [Blanch, his fiancé] who pointed out, “you’re a musician, you play piano – you’ve been teaching piano virtually for the past six months – use that!” and I thought, that makes total sense, I could share my skills in the competition.
Speaking of skills have you developed any new ones as part of the World Class 2021 process?
Learning to try to stand still when I’m talking! I didn’t realise how much I move around! Also all of the recording side of things was the biggest shock – I have a lot of respect for people who do television and film work, you always think they’re being paid a fortune to read a few lines, it must be so easy. Wrong! It was really challenging. Also, there are a lot of processes to the actual making of the drinks that I’ve never done before, so yes, there was a lot of learning.
You were each supplied boxes to get you Zoom ready, what was in them?
A ring light, some stands, microphone and an iPad.
Nice! What did you discover in the process of recording?
I hate the sound of my own voice! The recording part was the most challenging part for me. I have to say a huge thank you to India – if it wasn’t for her support, talent and honest feedback, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
How did you prepare and what were the lightbulb moments for your drinks?
For the Tanqueray drinks it was a case of going through the larder and thinking about ingredients that I’d like to use. I had a few ideas – zoning in on apples and vegetables, particularly peas. But strawberries really resonated with me. When I was reading about the fermentation of specific fruits, strawberries seemed to be the perfect ones. Also as we’re coming up to British Summertime, this fruit pays homage to that.
I spent of lockdown cooking and reading, one book in particular Persiana by Sabrina Gayhour really stood out – it’s a fabulous cookbook featuring lots of amazing herbs and spices. And I know this sounds really weird but I watched loads of episodes of Masterchef. You get so many ideas from it, hearing about lots weird flavours you’ve never heard of, then trying them out and seeing how they work. Those things helped me a lot.
The whisky round was really challenging, I didn’t really know where to go with it at first, particularly the Talisker drink where you had to focus on ingredients found around your local area. My first thought was to make a drink and reverse engineer it to a location but I thought that wouldn’t feel authentic. So I dismissed that idea and decided to focus on where I’d like to build a bar, what whisky means to me and what the bar would mean. It was about the connections between family and friends, and the connections with the industry – in a year when we haven’t had the opportunity to spend time with our families or see friends. It felt very right, really personal.
Which challenge were you most excited about?
The Scotch Box. Not at first, initially it terrified me! However, once I realised how to personalise it and use the platform to really celebrate my hometown, I ran with it. Northern Ireland is part of Great Britain and a part of the UK that’s often forgotten about. To be given the opportunity to shine a light on it was really important to me.
Which of your drinks best sums you up?
That’s a tricky one. I guess it would be either the Johnnie Walker or Talisker ones. They’re unassuming, they don’t look like much when you see them and they’re both very simple, which is why I love them. Pippa Guy summed it up by saying they look accessible – not like scary whisky drinks. Hopefully, they’ll connect with anyone who wants to try them.
It’s been challenging because of the virtual thing but lockdown has probably given you more time to formulate your ideas, would you agree?
Honestly, I do think so as well. Lockdown has been a gift and a curse I guess. It’s given us more time to think and conceptualise certainly, it’s also given us time to read millions of books, cook and play around with flavours, so all of that time has been so useful. But obviously not working in a bar, not being around bartenders and not making drinks all the time has made things more difficult.
How did you cope with that side of things?
When I’m teaching piano, if my students are struggling I tell them to walk away and take a break because your brain is building it up to be a big thing. When you walk away, you can come back fresh and tackle it. I used that thinking to get me through when I was struggling to come up with ideas.
What does winning World Class GB 2021 mean to you?
Everything. I’m absolutely and utterly thrilled but also incredibly honoured and privileged to be in the position to go and represent GB and hopefully win, that’s the next step. I want to say a massive thank you to everyone who’s helped, particularly all of the people who helped in the last round and India in particular.
Lastly, who was the first person you called after the announcement was made?
My mum, I had 10 missed calls from her as she’d been watching the event on Facebook Live!
Watch the winning announcement and highlights of the competition here