Finlandia Vodka Cup
This February, in Lapland, Finland, will be the 11th annual Finlandia Vodka Cup. This event draws bartenders from 30 nations to compete, in the arctic circle, for the Finlandia Cup title. The final 30 bartenders are culled from a series of regional and semi finals held in major cities around the world. The North American finals were held in November (2008) at the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Spring where seven American and four Canadian bartenders faced-off. The winning bartender, from each country, is to be loaded on an airplane and shipped to the arctic. I was privileged enough to be invited to observe the event, and this is what went down.
The Finladia shakeoff in Colorado Springs is basically a North American final. The eleven bartenders in the competition are the "top" cocktail makers from the regional's. The day before the competition, everyone arrived and had an opportunity to meet at a private dinner reception. The competitors were all fairly young and casual. They just seemed happy to be competing in the event.
Day 2 was more interesting, with an early morning breakfast and then a mixology seminar by Tony Abou-Ganim. Tony has been in the business for a long time and has a "presence" that get's your attention, which is good when doing a training session. The seminar was designed to help improve the bartender's cocktail making skills, with a specific focus on the "Quick Mix" category of the competition. The "Quick Mix" is basically an Iron Chef type deal, you get a box with a dozen, or so, ingredients and you have to make a decent cocktail from it in a short period of time.
During the session there was a trial run on the Quick Mix part of the competition. I think this surprised a lot of the bartenders, since it wasn't part of the regional events. I don't think there was a cocktail created that was memorable, aside from a few epic flops. The "Quick Mix" is a challenging scenario, but not uncommon in a bar environment where bartenders practice the dark arts of cocktail making.
After the session, everyone broke for lunch and then the competitors had to begin preparing for the competition. I decided to go check out a large collection of old spirit and wine bottles, many from the 1800's in a corridor of the hotel. These were bottles kept by the original owner of the hotel and were found and put on display. Very interesting stuff, if history is something that amuses you. Thanks to Lee Murphy for pointing them out.
I arrived just prior to the start of the competition and the bartenders seemed to be chomping at the bit. Each bartender had to make 3 different cocktails in multiples of 5 (four for judging and one for everyone to taste, using the "drum thief" method, clean straws were provided). The tasting method was a bit hard for me to compare cocktails, but it was enough to highlight which cocktails had an edge.
Once the competition was under way, the pressure seemed to increase for a few of the bartenders. Making five of the same cocktails doesn't seem that hard, but making sure they were perfect (taste, appearance, garnish) does take up a lot of the time. For the most part, round one seemed to go well, with some interesting takes on aperitifs. Many of the cocktails created didn't really fit the traditional definition of an aperitif, but sometimes you have to go with what you've got.
Round two was more relaxed, as the first cocktails were out of the way, and the competitors started to crack slight smiles. One who didn't was Brian Grant (Vancouver), who had the bartender nightmare scenario, when half way through the round he smashed a completed cocktail on his bar. The sound of breaking glass will send most bartenders into heightened state, but in a timed competition, Brian was probably in a "controlled panic". His recovery showed his true professionalism and he had the required five cocktails ready before time expired. Once the round was done, he smiled.
Round three, the Quick Mix", was divided into two part, the first few minutes were to note and think about the ingredients provided, and then time was given to make the required five cocktails. For some of the bartenders this went off smoothly, having learned from the early morning session. Others struggled to make something work.
One piece of wisdom that Tony shared during his mixology session was to keep things simple. The competitors that did, seemed to do ok, those that tried to be epic, struggled.
Overall the competition was entertaining and there were some definite challenges for the competitors. Obviously, the bartenders had to use a Finlandia Vodka product in each of their cocktails, but the choice was wide enough (Grapefruit, Lime, Mango, Wildberry, Cranberry and regular vodka) that they could make some interesting cocktails. Everything else was open, with a limit of five ingredients, not including garnish.
One thing that I noticed was that recipes must be carried forward from the preliminary rounds until the finals in Finland. Minor modifications are allowed, but no major changes. This basically means that what you created at the first level of competition, will be used in the finals. For me this would be hard, because in early levels I'd do a half-assed job, and then, as the competition got more intense, I'd put my game-face on. A few bartenders commented on this, since they felt this locked them into something that might not be their best cocktail. But those are the rules.
The four Canadian competitors, aside from dressing alike, also seemed to work within a framework for their cocktails. There were no gimmicks, or surprises for their cocktails, they were just well crafted.
Canadian Competitors Cocktail Entries
|Brian Grant - Loden Hotel / Vyoa |
Vancouver, British Columbia
|"Si" Groni |
Mango "J" Collins
|Jason Brus - Radio Lounge 1 |
|Sames Punch |
|Adrian Stein - Mistura |
Ginger Lime Gimlet
|Jeff Schaus, Metropolitain Grill |
|Mango Zen |
After all was said and done, the top Canadian bartender was Jeff Schaus, who scored a hat-trick by winning all three categories. His drinks were well balanced, and he had a knack for using herbs in his cocktail. For the most part his cocktails were simple, and his garnishes and glassware were exceptional. Presentation counts for a lot and he definitely put some extra effort by bringing his own glassware.
All of the Canadian bartenders put in a good effort. Their cocktails were all creative, but didn't push the boundaries with molecular mixology, wild garnishes or glassware. While I was watching the judges come to their final conclusion, they did remark that "this group" (being the Canadian group of cocktails) was consistently well done. So, it's not just my opinion.
On the "south side of the border" there was more of a tendency to be showy, with entries using molecular mixology and a pumpkin as the serving vessel, as examples. But, in a competition like this, you can only get so far with presentation, and when it comes time to judge, taste is everything. Christine Misiura, from Florida, won the US part of the competition, and her cocktail garnishes were all well done. She only won one category, but averaged higher than her competitors when the numbers were compiled.
Overall, the majority of the cocktails were well made, with presentation being a strong point. There were a few flops, especially in the Quick Mix category, but that's to be expected.
Speaking with Tony Abou-Ganim after the awards presentation, I asked what he thought about the molecular mixology entries. His thoughts on that branch of cocktail making were "if the technique added to the perception of flavour in the cocktail, then great, but if it distracts from the drink, then it becomes more of a novelty". Tony also mentioned that making cocktails overly complicated can be a distraction and when it came to the Quick Mix portion of the event, this was key.
Bartending competitions are always fun. The bartender personality makes these events very social, and when everyone wasn't at a scheduled event, most participant could be found in the Broadmoor Hotel Bar, with the great bar staff, drinking and chatting. Even though it was a competition, all of the bartenders were casual about it, and there was no obvious "competitive fire" or "one-ups-manship" to speak of. I probably spent more time in the Hotel Bar than any other place during my stay, and even though I was drinking, it's still the most memorable part. That's a testament to the Finlandia and Brown & Forman staff who put the event together.
As for Jeff Schaus, the Canadian winner, he's taking a trip from one cold climate to another, so he should be well conditioned. Calgary and Lapland Finland are about the same temperature this time of year. As for Christine, who works in a pool bar (swimming type, not table type) in Florida, she might want to bundle up, it's going to be cold!