To make it in the high-end bartending world you have to have a mix of skill, talent, and personality. Simply stirring a martini isn’t gonna cut it. Creativity and panache play a huge role when you’re slinging drinks. To up their respective games, many of the most ambitious bartenders dip a toe in the international cocktail competition circuit. It’s a great way to get your face out there, make new friends, and refine your skills.
Here’s the rub: Those big cocktail competitions are often held in travel destinations — far from the average American’s home bar. That means brands hosting these events will have to fly out 50 to 100 people, house them, feed them, and then fly them all home. It’s a lot of money for a bit of advertising and, perhaps more importantly, it’s a lot of carbon being pumped into our atmosphere.
As a response to the latter issue, two of the world’s best bartenders are changing the way we think about cocktail competitions. Iain Griffiths and Kelsey Ramage left Dandelyan in London (the world’s best bar) just over two years ago and founded the international anti-waste collective Trash Tiki. They traveled the world talking with bartenders and mixing drinks from what was — essentially — the garbage a cocktail bar creates. It’s been a game changer in not only providing more sustainable and environmentally sound bars but in shifting the whole conversation about waste and profit in the bar game.
Now, Griffiths and Ramage are taking the next logical step and completely turning the cocktail competition model on its head. They teamed up with Sombra Mezcal to try a wholly new way to run a competition — with the lowest carbon footprint they could manage. The plan called for Griffiths, Ramage, and Sombra put out a request for recipes from bartenders in the U.S. and Canada. These bartenders would be tasked with making a unique cocktail with Sombra Mezcal and a recipe that included at least two sustainable practices. Participants then submitted their recipes to the team and Griffiths and Ramage both made and judged the cocktails.
Over 100 entries were submitted with a final 40 cocktails making it into the final competition. Since this was a “Virtual” contest, it literally saved the carbon emissions from at least 40 bartenders being flown somewhere to compete. Instead, Griffiths and Ramage worked from their home bars in Toronto and had a hoot testing the innovative and sustainable cocktails at home.
We caught up with the duo last week as they locked in their top 12, whittled down from the original 40. They explained what Sombra’s Sustainable Virtual Cocktail Competition means for the future of high-end bartending and parsed their top 12 cocktails.
Okay, walk us through how this works?
Iain: The bartenders were given a simple brief to a create a Sombra Mezcal Cocktail with a recipe that included at least two sustainable practices. They were encouraged to go into as much detail as possible in their applications and provide as many photos as they liked.
After receiving over 100 applications we had one hell of a task in front of us. We went through the applications probably four or five times sorting those who had met all the criteria. Then we took a deeper look at specs, techniques, etc.
We wound up with 40 recipes from that. Then we spent a very long day making every drink. From those 40 we chose a top 12. Then we took a few days away from the drinks before remaking the top 12 with fresh eyes and fresh palates. After another glorious of tasting, we had a winner!
Do you feel like you’re still able to capture the character of the mixologist when they’re not present and engaged?
Kelsey: This was on our mind a lot in the lead-up. It was also the catalyst for us making sure we made the drinks multiple times, with the story for each drink handy as we tasted it. Was it the same as sitting at a bar and having each bartender step up and give their presentations? No.
However, part of that was what excited us about the Sombra Competition in the first place. Not all competitions should be the same, and this approach was really interesting. The reduction in carbon footprint using this model is huge and can’t be stated enough!
Iain: In the end, the quality of the drinks and standard of effort put in were crazy good. We really felt the top 12 would’ve been the same had we done it face to face.
What did you not foresee being a challenge that you’ve had to work around/adapt to?
Iain: Well, and a few people might eye roll at this, but having to drink 40 cocktails in a single day is not quite a walk in the park it sounds. We’ve judged a lot of comps before, but when you have to make every drink yourself and then drink it … that is one very long day. Not that we’re complaining too much.
What surprised you?
Kelsey: The techniques! So much cool shit we’d never thought of before that we can’t wait to share with the world and fold into our own drinks. This was such a great way to see how bartenders around the country are tackling the notion of sustainability in their own bars and really was inspiring to see.
Let’s talk about sustainability. Reusing products, using the whole buffalo, and not wasting carbon are hugely important topics. Do you see this as a way forward for the industry? How long do you think it’d take for this to catch on?
Iain: So it’s a big issue right? And hella complex to boot! What’s been great to see is how our industry has brought the idea of sustainability into venues in a manner that means it won’t be a flash in the pan trend but rather a new evolution in modern bartending. The techniques on display in this comp will be par for course for the next generation(s) for sure.
There’s no magic answer to what every brand/bar/bartender can do to be more environmentally minded, it requires a localized and personal approach. At first we were worried this would be viewed as an obstacle but, instead, the whole industry has realized that it’s a huge bonus, that we can all do our bit, and do it in a way that’s true to each of us as individuals. That’s what’s bringing about such rapid change.
It’s just coming up on two years since we launched Trash Tiki. Before that, all of this was being spoken about for a good few years. As we round out this decade, there’s been a seismic shift in the way bartenders and distilleries approach their craft. That’s some impressive change for the better!
Where do you see the possibility to bring in more tech?
Kelsey: The conversation around how tech will eventually play a role in the hospitality game is becoming one of increasing presence. The romantic in us both say tech has already done all it can because this is a job that champions human nature and connection. The job continues to connect us in new ways, allowing the ability to share knowledge and skill sets immediately with the world while also letting brilliant innovations like the Sombra Mezcal Competition to take place.
But the reality is that we’re just getting started and whether tech creates an industry-wide shift or simply another sub-category of cocktail culture is yet to be seen. As an example, in the same spirit as this competition, there are some super talented friends bringing about the ability for a bar to be able to calculate the carbon footprint of every cocktail you serve, which is only possible because of connectivity we now have.
Iain: The quality, intelligence, and innovation of the cocktails we saw put forward in this comp also show why we’re a long way off robot bartenders coming for our jobs!
Tristan Bragaglia-Murdock, “Curse of the Cactus” (Jabberwocky, Ottawa)
“Tristan showed some great creativity by giving our chopping board cordial a killer update and the mint stem sherry was also a lovely touch!”
Luke Carnevale, “Piña Dorado” (Manna Avenue, Wilmington, NC)
“Luke’s bar is located in North Carolina and he made excellent use of local ingredients sourced from his area. He made a longleaf pine syrup and used a sea salt extracted using solar evaporation by a local couple.”
Marshall Davis, “Hyena Fang” (Gallo Pelón Mezcaleria, Raleigh, NC)
“Marshall paired Amontillado sherry with peanut-infused Sombra Mezcal and a peanut shell salted Zucca, which is a really creative use of flavors and an interesting use of the shells that we hadn’t seen anyone do before.”
Michael Dumapias, “El Jefe” (Broken Shaker, Miami)
“Mike showed why we’re always in awe of what the Shaker fam produces. This was just a great drink that we hope makes its way onto a menu real soon! The coffee liqueur recipe we’re def stealing.”
Kate Gerwin, “Like White on Rice” (Front & Cooper, Santa Cruz, CA)
“This drink just had us smiling, brilliantly creative and bold, just like everything Kate does, and we were happily drinking the extra rice/fennel horchata for days after!”
Tony Lamperti, “The Devil’s in the Details” (Ace Hotel, New Orleans)
“Tony’s drink stood out as he made a simple twist on an old tequila classic, the El Diablo. However, he had made each ingredient out of something from his bar that would have ordinarily been destined for the trash.”
Melissa Markert, “Oaxaca Colada” (The Dead Rabbit, New York)
“Loved Melissa using buttermilk, showing how by-products can still be commercially viable and the lime sherbet added a great kick an incredibly well-balanced cocktail.”
Jon Mateer, “Para La Tierra” (Death & Co., Denver, CO)
“Para La Tierra translates to “For the Earth,” and it was the interesting use of ingredients that made this drink stand out. Jon used tops and tails of bell peppers that were left over from the kitchen of the hotel, along with open Chardonnay and an onion skin ash, along with a citrus scrap cordial.”
Blaze Montana, “Scoby Wan Kenobi” (Front & Cooper, Santa Cruz, CA)
“Best name of the comp! Also loved the bold direction of submitting a fully batched drink and, as kombucha lovers, the way this works with Sombra Mezcal is something we’ll definitely be revisiting as a flavor profile for future drinks!”
Maggie Morgan, “Todo Bien” (Manolito, New Orleans)
“Maggie used tops and tails of Serrano and bell peppers, along with strawberry tops, to create a “basura” cordial that paired up with a pineapple tepache that we thought were great flavors to match with the mezcal.”
Zach Sapato, “Peach Buzz” (The Lowry Uptown, Minneapolis, MN)
“Zach’s drink was delicious, but also made use of the whole peach, including the juice and using the nut to make an orgeat syrup. He paired it with a dill infusion and prosecco vinegar.”
Brendan Wooldridge, “Smoke & Pearls” (Chambar Restaurant, Vancouver, BC)