Often times, I feel our drinking menu only includes vodka, gin or rum mixed with a soft drink, energy drink or some juice. It’s as if folks are just trying to make their alcohol consumption easier and faster with the sole purpose of getting intoxicated. Of course, my unfavorable attitude towards getting wasted is well-documented, and when I was offered the chance to be one of the few people invited to the first leg of Diageo’s World Class competition in Lebanon to see how alcohol (and food for that matter) should be prepared and consumed for the flavor and talent, not to get wasted, I graciously accepted.
13 bartenders from Beirut’s finest clubs and bars prepared and allowed the judges and audience to sample their signature cocktails accompanied by tailor-made canapes and appetizers. The judges included Tim Philips, the Aussie bartender who won last year’s World Class competition, beating 17,000 other bartenders from across the world (it’s cool to mention that last year’s Most Stylish Bartender was Lebanese: Varya, from Momo’s at the Souks). The second judge was Hidetsugu Ueno, a Japanese bartender famous for his ice-sculpting skills. The third member of the panel was Lebanese chef Dory Masri.
I had the fortune of sitting down with Tim and Ueno-san before the competition kicked off and asked them a few questions I felt other folks wouldn’t have asked them before. As a cocktail newbie, I asked them straight up, why should folks order cocktails instead of just mixing a bottle with some juice? Ueno-san joked around “I am old, I don’t like and I can’t get drunk anymore. I want to enjoy the drink, enjoy the preparation process and indulge in the flavors and skill put into making the drink.”
I’m a Biologist deep-down, so I had to get some science into this, and asked Tim about the science behind “mixology” which after all, has an “-ology” at the end and is basically some delicious Chemistry. After a few chuckles, Tim went on to explain for example how an egg can play different roles for different drinks, “If you want to emulsify your drink, add texture to it for example, you’d use the egg whites. If it’s flavor you’re looking for, the egg yolk would be the part of the egg you’d wanna use. If you’re going for both the flavor the egg yolk adds as well as the texture the egg whites help create, then you can do that too.”
One thing that baffles me is how we keep hearing “it took X years” to brew or prepare a certain type of whiskey for example, yet, we lump in some tap-water ice cubes into it, completely throwing off the flavor and careful percentages of the malt for example (in my opinion at least). I asked Tim and Ueno-san about that, and if that’s a concern for them. Ueno-san, ice being his specialty, jumped in and explained “Ice-machines we use have filters built-in, most bars do actually. So, it depends on where you’re getting your ice from. I definitely recommend doing your own ice which you can filter and monitor the quality of. Remember, one-fourth or one-fifth of every cocktail is ice or crushed ice, so the quality of the water you’re using is definitely very important for any bartender.”
One last thing I asked about was what was their favorite food-cocktail combo, and which one was their worst. Tim and Ueno-san here stressed that it’s always “mixing a cocktail for a a dish” when it should be “creating a dish that goes with the cocktail” and that was what Barchef was all about. We tend to always consider cocktails a compliment to the food, but after the 13 contestant’s complex and grueling preparation of their signature cocktails, I realized that they sorta did have a point and that the bartender should also dabble in the solid-gastronomy part to enhance his or her liquid-gatronomy creation.
The contestants and their drinks were as follows:
- Julian Youssef (Cassis): Corstini, cherry tomatoes, goat cheese with mint leaves.
- Richard Kharrat (La Vida): Cream cheese canapé
- Ahmad Nader (Iris): Salmon bites in a spoon
- Alain Ashkar (Al Mandaloun): Maki rolls.
- Samer Nehme (Überhaus): Kebbe nayeh
- Joseph Antoun (Lei): Bacon rolls, pineapple and pepper made with liquid nitrogen
- Simon Sayyan (Alcazar): Salmon shrimp tempura with chilli sauce
- Rani Bayda (Zinc): Fresh Japanese scallops with Don Julio coffee sauce.
- Dany Farraj (Kribs): Canapés of Parma ham and sun dried tomato
- Walid Darwish (Caprice): Maki rolls.
- Haytham Mantach (Mad): Saudi-style dates (tamer)
- Wassim Baddour (February 30): Orange and strawberry jam on a French baguette
- Jad Ballout (Garcia’s): Caviar canapés
My absolute favorite of the night was definitely Lei’s Joseph, who used liquid nitrogen to freeze his cocktail into a slush-like mixture that kept effusing fog for several minutes even after serving it to the judges, which I found wicked-awesome and had that extra touch of geeky-science into this otherwise usually artsy field.
One contestant that had me rethink my attitudes about both Tequila and Turkish Coffee was Zinc’s Rani. Rani came prepared, he did his research and took his time presenting himself, his establishment as well as the histories of the ingredients he was using (Don Julio Tequila and turkish coffee). His set-up was also very elaborate, with traditional kettles, arguilehs, pots and pans decorating his bar. He mixed the tequila with coffee, added some brown and white sugar, and let them sit for two weeks. The result, was absolutely magical. He served them in the “shaffeh” cups and from a person who’s not a fan of either coffee or tequila, I must say, wow (I’ve even begun to try to brew my own batch). I think the fact it takes 2 weeks to prepare though, sort of defeated the purpose of preparing your drink right there on the spot.
Carpice’s Walid used egg whites, which made me and Tim look at each other and smile. having just talked about the usage of different egg components in drink preparation.
The best showman of the night though, was definitely Garcia’s Jad. He got off to a bumpy start with some broken glassware, but quickly recovered and did not fail to dazzle the judges and everyone there. After offering mint water to wash-off the 12 other cocktails’ tastes, he began an elaborate process of creating his cocktail and food. Zacapa Rum, dark chocolate, cinnamon, aged vermouth, ginger and black pepper were all artfully mixed creating a cocktail with multiple layers of flavor that unfolded over time after you take a sip. The cherry on top though, was him preparing his canapes right there on the sport, with chocolate, caviar and to my intense delight, smoking them in front of us all and topping it off with “enjoy sea, clouds, and my temptation on top” which almost had me go “BAM!”
The winners were, naturally, Jad Ballout with his Temptation Above the Clouds and Joseph Antoun from Lei with his liquid nitrogen awesomeness. Hopefully, I’ll be at the next leg and cover that too!
I hope this coverage will help convince some of you heavy drinkers out there to try and savor good cocktails, instead of just “poppin’ bottles” left and right. Bartenders are cool people and many of them are really good at what they do, so put them to the test and get something that taste good, not just something that makes you drive home drunk!
Special thanks to No Garlic No Onions for some of the photos and good company during the long, fun day!