Wow! Ladies and gentlemen, what a match! If you think bartending is easy feel free to enlist next year in what is commonly known as 'the Olympics of Bartending' - Diageo World Class! After more than 10 hours of competing, Belgium finally has a candidate to send to the Global Finals in South Africa: Mr. Jurgen Nobels!!! Photography by Johan Van Droogenbroeck
Monday 1st of June 2015 was D-Day. All Ten Finalists gathered at the amazingly charming Vaudeville Theatre in Brussels to show their passion and skill set by conjuring the best drink they can under tremendous amounts of stress and a hawk-eyed jury. Mind you, making drinks is not the only thing a bartender must excel at. Besides cocktails, also drinks knowledge, tasting skills, presentation, creativity, technique, complexity and expression of spirit are put to the test.
At 10:30 the candidates started a written examination on common knowledge about cocktails and spirits of the Diageo brand. 40 yes or no questions to answer, 40 points to earn. And not only your knowledge is challenged, but also your attention – we all know that attention and observation are prime skills for a bartender – for example: “Mr. Vasquez, master distiller of Zacapa, has constructed one of the most complicated solar systems world wide“. True or false? Well, everything seems all right with this one, except for one small detail… it’s Mrs. Vasquez not Mr. And if you ever met her, you would have remembered. A most charming lady, with a profound knowledge on distilling.
Next up was the blind tasting test. Three drinks of each base spirit – gin, whiskey, rum, tequila – and you had to be able to pick out the Diageo Reserve Brand. Extremely difficult. Only 4 bartenders out of 10 managed to score a 4 out of 4 on this one, which is amazing!
Then at 12:30h the first public round was about to start: the speed challenge: create 4 different drinks under 6 minutes, while scoring not only for speed, but also for taste, balance, presentation, creativity, complexity, etc… It’s a challenge that separates the boys from the men so to speak and only 5 candidates would go through. This is a very difficult challenge, I mean try this at home and see how difficult it is and then try it in a theatre with 200 people watching you, amongst them 4 judges busy breathing over your fingers, a daunting task. It is very important to keep talking while you’re at it, which isn’t easy. If you stop talking, you lose out against anyone who doesn’t in presentation (most of the time, unless the speaker was blurting out gibberish or just plain bullshit) and maybe more important, because you stop talking all the judges’ attention goes to your technique and you don’t want that in a speed round I think. Also, mind you from speed pouring, it might help you making your drinks faster, but it’s even more difficult to get your drinks right and balanced out.
And there it was, the first elimination. These 5 remained: Hannes Desmedt from Hertog Jan ***, Didier Van den Broeck from Dogma, Ran Van Ongevalle from Pharmacy, Dries Botty from Josephine’s and Jurgen Nobels formerly from Old Fashioned. Next up is one of my favourite challenges: the mystery box.
All candidates are put in front of a mystery box filled with ingredients and they have to make 2 contrasting cocktails with it. They have 30 minutes to come up with 2 good recipes, stories, names and presentations. This tests the bartender’s creativity and skill to improvise. Like Didier for instance, who made a Dolphin garnish out of a banana for his Tiki drink. It was Jurgen however who made the perfect contrast between his two drinks.
There was only place for three candidates in the final round so two had to go. At this point as a jury, you become very nervous, because if there’s any discrepancies between scores you’ll end up discussing for hours.
So there’s a little bit of nail biting involved when the scores were added up (without pre discussion). The jury consisted of the amazing Spike Marchant (Global World Class Ambassador), Carl Van Droogenbroeck (Reserve Brand Ambassador & Belgium World Class winner of 2013), Geert Van Der Bruggen (Michelin star Chef) and yours truly from The Cocktail Nation.
Spike really is amazing, the man has been in the business for so long and has judged every Global Final there is, I think. Also, I’m sure that he must have swallowed an amplifier at one point in his career, because his voice booms so loudly that microphones cringe in fear when his head comes near.
Carl also deserves a lot of respect, not the least for enduring my company for more than 5 weeks and crossing the country several times in order to finish 2 bursts of in-bar judging to be able to select the 10 finalists. This guy’s thorough and dedicated insight in the profession of a barmanager is truly impressive. Also his unshakable calmness (at least in perception ;)) is so characterising that it should get a Facebook page in itself.
Geert is a very charismatic person and an excellent star chef. Although not very experienced in cocktails, he has an uncanny experience in flavours, aromas and textures. I truly believe it’s always a plus to have a non-cocktailian in a jury and score everything from a specific point of view. And he did perfectly. Also, I don’t think he will ever drink a Moscow Mule again 😉
And I was there too… Now, amazingly there were no discrepancies and we ended up with the same top 3, unanimously. Much to our own relief and after a lot of eyebrow sweat wiping, Spike announced the 3 finalists: Ran Van Ongevalle, Dries Botty en Jurgen Nobels.
These 3 were faced with the final challenge: create the ultimate World Class drink while trying to engage as much senses as you can.
Dries made a remarkable vodka drink. We take our hats off and bow to you sir! It takes balls to pick vodka for a sensory challenge and you pulled it off. What’s more, you probably created the best vodka drink I ever had.
Ran had spent 4 weeks on a safari in the amazonian Dune forest at the coast and he plundered it to make us a self foraged drink (he said he forgot to bring his ants and I am very glad for that 😉 ). Your presentation was spectacular! While the man was preparing his drink, next to him a sous chef was making no less than 4 different side dishes, which were as great as the drink itself.
Jurgen’s presentation was a bit of a surprise to me. I’ve always known Jurgen as a very calm and sympathetic gentleman, maybe even a little bit shy I dare say. What happened there? This man turned into cocktail creating whirlwind, a mixonado as it were (should that become a word…probably not). I almost didn’t had a chance to write down notes or even scores. We were tasting 5 different things while having to solve a quiz! Yes, a quiz! In the meantime he had deconstructed his own home brewed beer and turned it into a tequila and genever based beer cocktail which totally blew my mind. Get that beer out on the market, it’s sheer bliss!
And now, to put it in the words of our wonderful presenter Hannah Van Ongevalle (who also did a wonderful job), “without further ado”, we went upstairs to calculate who had won the finals. I don’t think it took us longer than 20 minutes and everybody agreed on the result.
Mr. Jurgen Nobels wins the Belgian World Class finals of 2015 and will represent us at the Global Finals in South Africa! ‘Baie lekker, Bro!’
8 things we remember from the finals:
- Shrub is surprisingly popular lately!
- The contrast of an ice cold drink poured in a room temperature glass brings out more flavour.
- You can make a dolphin out of a banana!
- I forgot my Nobel's Beer at the Theatre.
- "You don't have to shake it, you have to wake it!"
- Taste by the spoon, the straw or the hand... the discussion continuous.
- Never stop talking, unless it's for breathing!
- Presentation is important, but the drink is king!