What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, when we first gathered at the City Inn in London for the first proper Whisky Cocktail Challenge, there was a lot of prodding and poking at the idea of whisky cocktails. Lots of sniff and scratch, lots of taste it and see.
Our barmen gathered intrigued and engaged, but not altogether sure about what we were all doing here. The guys with the bourbons and blends looked happier than the guys with the malts. What to do?Hide the malt notes in a mass of fruit juice or wave them defiantly, using the cocktail base to draw attention to them?
A year on and that debate is already well and truly redundant. Britain’s best bar tenders are embracing single malt and showing it off, revelling in the challenge it represents and taking pride in their ability to conquer it and display it in all its glory, the cocktail maker’s equivalent to taming a stallion.
This year’s event takes place the afternoon before Whisky Live London, and is once more at the City Inn. The competitors this year include some from last, but there are several new faces too. Most are accompanied by a group of supporters so by the time we start there’s a healthy crowd in the bar.
Cocktail competitions have a momentum of their own. The bar tenders decide the running order by ballot. Each bar tender takes his potion at the bar in turn, and prepares himself. The judges – made up of Whisky Magazine personnel and the highly-respected Henry Besant from The Lonsdale and Nick Strangeway from Floridita, sit at the bar.
Each competitor has a few minutes to prepare his drink, explaining what he’s doing to the judges as he does so. When the drink’s finished, two glasses are served and passed to the judges and then to the room.
Scoring is done partially on presentation of the drink and partially by the performance of the drink’s creator, but mainly for the drink itself and how it combines the taste of whisky in the context of a cocktail.
Two trends become clear as the event progresses: one, that a simple approach seems to work best with whisky cocktails: and two, while the drinks aren’t overlavish, that doesn’t mean our bar tenders haven’t sourced some strange and unusual ingredients.
The simplicity trend is demonstrated by a couple of drinks that take a classic idea and twist it, like Max Warner’s Chivas Old-Fashioned.
The drink, traditionally made with bourbon, is immediately given its twist by the use of a Scottish blend. Max stays close to tradition with brown sugar, bitters, orange zest and maraschino cherries. To make the cocktail work properly with the Scotch, though, Max adds mandarin. Simple and very effective.
The simple approach is also evident in Barry Wilson’s J&B cocktail, using the new J&B -6°C, a very young and totally clear whisky which is effectively the missing link between new make spirit and commercial blended whisky.
He adds apple juice, a dash of elderflower cordial, lots of ice and a lemon zest garnish to produce a whisky that is very fresh, very clean and very summery. If it has a fault it’s that the base spirit is less definably whisky and it makes for the least obviously whisky cocktail of the day.
The trend to use unusual ingredients isn’t a new one initself, but it impacted more this year than last, and clearly a considerable amount of time and effort has gone in to sourcing products to create exciting and innovative cocktails based on whisky.
Michael Ramsey, for instance, performed wonders with a combination that included fresh pineapple, Jim Beam Black and Tabasco. One of Bobby Chaggar’s cocktail contained a 10 year old Macallan, chestnut and sugar paste and parsley; and Max Warner’s Chivas Galore includes gingerbread mix, fresh raspberries, egg and chilli.
Perhaps most impressive of all was Paul McDonald, an Australian who clearly understands Scottish culture. His Girvan Dram used Tablet, arguably the sweetest product on the planet, mixed in to a paste and combined with Grant’s, orange bitters and a pinch of cloves and decorated with a homemade garnish. Quick and easy to prepare, the finished drink was also superb.
But perhaps the best example of the marriage of old and new, simple and unusual, is provided by Nidal Ramini, who pays respect to his Lebanese roots with his East Meets West Julep.
That’s exactly what it is, taking the traditional Julep and making it with excellent bourbon Woodford Reserve. The twist on a drink that combines bourbon with crushed mint leaves and ice comes in the form of Lebanese honey and the addition of pomegranate molasses and fresh pomegranate.
Using a large measure of Woodford Reserve (“so you really taste it”) the resulting drink is in your face, devastatingly simple and impressively different.
This year there were no poor entrants, and quality clearly had replaced quantity. Every drink would merit a serving over the summer.
Commenting on the results chairman of the judges Dave Broom said: “Without doubt there was a far higher overall standard than the first year. Bartenders are really getting to grips with the complex flavours of Scotch and giving them subtle and intriguing tweaks, not pouring in loads of juices because they want the taste of the whisky to go away.
“To me this shows a deeper understanding of the spirit itself, which can only be good for the future of Scotch. This might not be to the taste of the malt aficionado but it is of real relevance to today’s bar-hopping drinker.”
Dave BroomWhisky Magazine
Dominic RoskrowWhisky Magazine
Glenfiddich12 Year Old
The Macallan10 Year Old
Jim BeamBlack Label
Woodford ReserveKentucky Bourbon
Chivas Regal12 Year Old
Grant’sBlended Scotch Whisky
Single Malt winner
Mini GasparyBy Michael PerronINGREDIENTS
- 50 ml Glenfiddich 12 Year Old
- 15ml Green Chartreuse
- 25ml Benedictine
- 1ml Peychauds Bitters
Mix bitters, Benedictine, Glenfiddich, and lots of ice.
Add Green Chartreuse and rosemary.
Flame glass then add whisky mix Serve with ice
East Meets West JulepBy Nidal RaminiINGREDIENTS
- 60ml Woodford Reserve
- Lebanese honey
Put fresh pomegranate in a tall glass and crush with mint leaves.
Add Woodford Reserve.
Add pomegranate molasses.
Add crushed ice until glass is full.
Decorate with pomegranate.
Girvan DramBy Paul McDonaldINGREDIENTS
- 50ml Grants
- 25ml tablet mix made using Scottish tablet and water
- Pinch of cloves
- Dash orange bitters
Add ingredients to cocktail shaker.
Shake and serve.
Blends Highly Recommended
Passport PeachBy Daniel UndhammarINGREDIENTS
- Freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 25ml white peach puree
- Peach bitters
- 50 ml Passport whisky
- 10ml Disaronno
- Vanilla grass
Three quarters fill a long glass with crushed ice.
Add vanilla sugar, lemon juice, white peach puree, peach bitters and Passport. Stir. Add dash of Disaronno.
Decorate with vanilla grass.