The Cocktail Nation was invited to attend the Northern Europe Finals of the famous Diageo World Class Coktail Competition at the Nolet distillery in Schiedam, the Netherlands. What follows is an account of the absolute blast we had that day!
Article and Photos by Mickaël
Editing by Rolf
The competition took place at the Nolet distillery, home of the world-famous Ketel One Vodka. The venue itself had plenty on offer besides the actual cocktail competition. Attendees could enlist for a Ketel One Bloody Mary workshop, or a Zacapa Master Distiller session. Additionally, the distillery itself opened its doors for a guided tour. Last but not least, we were treated to ‘yum yums’ by Jord Althuizen of Smokey Goodness, ‘the biggest barbecue badass of the Netherlands’ (and pitmaster of Black Smoke Antwerp red.). We had a good burger, yes! Our main goal, however, was to enjoy that exhilarating mixology action from right in front of the bar.
During the Northern Europe Finals, bartenders from 6 countries – Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden – competed against their fellow countrymen and –women for that spot in the Global Finals in Glasgow, 3 months from now. To get there, the competitors had to score as many points as possible across 4 challenges: a theoretical test, a tasting test, a signature serve challenge, and a speed test, all organized per country.
As the theoretical test and tasting challenge had already been concluded the day before, the second day of the competition focused completely on the bread and butter of mixology: shaking up delicious and innovative cocktails. From the start, we knew the signature serve and speed challenges were going to be intense, as both the Belgian and Finnish team had seasoned bartenders with technical prowess and creativity. From the cheering of the crowd, it turned out the other countries brought their A-game too, though there wasn’t really any doubt on our part (that’s World Class for you! red.).
For the Signature Serve challenge, contestants had to work around one specific topic: bees, or rather, their rapid decline in population. Each contestant was asked to create a presentation focusing on raising awareness and possible preservation concerning the decline in population of our buzzing friends, and also to “[u]se Ketel One Vodka as the base to create a single ingredient cocktail using at least 3 different expressions of your given ingredient, HONEY or HONEY COMB, each using a different flavour extraction/manipulation technique. [They were allowed] to use other ingredients, [but] the honey [had to be] the center point of [their] serve.” (World Class Competition).
The second challenge of the day was the speed challenge, in which the bartenders not only had to create their own interpretations of 6 classic cocktails in only 7 minutes, but also had to battle against a competitor from another team. Speed, creativity, and a flawless technique all came together in probably the most intense 21 minutes of bartending we have ever seen!
After a fantastic afternoon filled with delicious cocktails, the finalists for the Global Finals were announced: Thomas Timmermans (Belroy’s Bijou, Antwerp – Belgium), James Chaib (The Tailor, Amsterdam – The Netherlands), Liisa Lindroos (Kuuma, Tampere – Finland), Josephine Sondlo (Indio Kitchen, Stockholm – Sweden), Malin Stavsoien (Nordost, Trondheim – Norway) and Alexander Remoundous (Ruby Cocktail Bar, Copenhagen – Denmark).
As the Belgian team (Ruben Patoor, Sofian Vlaminck, and Thomas Timmermans) and Finnish team (Juuso Villanen, Liisa Lindroos, and Mikko Hokkanen) were sharing a bar – working in tandem throughout the day – we did not have the chance to see all bartenders in action. Luckily, our focus on this specific bar allowed us to have an up-close spectacle and subsequent interviews with the Belgian and Finnish bartenders. Below, we have added two interviews with the winners of the Belgian and Finnish team: Thomas Timmermans and Liisa Lindroos.
First, we interviewed our Belgian winner of the World Class competition, Antwerp-based Thomas Timmermans from Belroy’s Bijou. He impressed the judges – and us – with an excellent signature serve, focusing on bee preservation and its representation in the cocktail. His speed challenge was simply top-notch and flawless! With this outstanding performance, he has deserved the right to call himself ‘one of the best bartenders in the world’.
The Cocktail Nation: Thomas, what a performance! You were flawless during the two challenges. You looked confident, and I think you really impressed the judges with your creativity and know-how. Can you tell us something more about your signature serve concept and cocktail?
Thomas Timmermans: Thanks! For my signature serve, I really wanted to go back to nature. As we all know, the reason why bees are disappearing is because of things we do. So giving back to the bees was really my inspiration. I did some research to find out what the struggles are, and what could help them. I did not do anything that was not already existent. I simply brought all these natural products together in one serving.
I am really passionate about the bee sanctuary that I have created. It has a bee hotel at its core. It is a place for bees to settle in, and it is even possible if you haven’t got a big garden. I added some plants and flowers that would attract bees, but also keep predators of bees away. Lastly, I added some stones to filter water through, so the bees do not die of dehydration.
With respect for the bees, I only used natural products, and most of them are even products of the bees’ labour. Propolis, for example, is a by-product that would normally end in the dustbin. I infused it in oil and then used it in my cocktail. I used locally produced bee honey, which is so much better than honey made by bigger corporations.
The Cocktail Nation: In your second challenge, you had to create 6 classic cocktails with a twist. What was your concept for this challenge?
Thomas: It was really difficult, because the organisation first announced a normal speed run, but then it turned out you had to race the other bartender, while at the same time create your own versions of these cocktails. They have to be tasty, creative, and in a showdown also the technique and the ‘show’ aspect really are taken into account. Just staying within the time limit without using too many different ingredients was perhaps the biggest challenge.
I tackled the challenge as a ‘world journey’. I think classic cocktails come from all around the world, so I linked every cocktail to a specific country, and then used the ingredients from that country. For a Whiskey Sour, I chose Belgium. I used cherry beer and walnut beer. Next up, I made a Moroccan Bee’s Knees, containing bee pollen, oranges, and cilantro, which gave this cocktail a really fresh twist. Then, we are going to Mexico for a Margarita. My version was actually a twist of a Margarita and a Paloma, which is one of my favourite drinks. You have the agave syrup, the grapefruit, a little bit of Cointreau Noir. For my Rob Roy, I got inspired by Sri Lanka. I used peat-infused Belsazar red vermouth next to Johnnie Walker, and also home-made cassia bitters. The drink I was most proud of was my Zacapa Old Fashioned, which was a challenging drink to make because it is so sweet. I used syrup of vanilla, chipotle, and bell pepper to introduce some spiciness to the already sweet drink, and it fits really well together. Then I tied this cocktail to Spain. Lastly, I had an Italian Bloody Mary, which was pretty straight-forward. I used basil-infused Ketel One vodka, a home-made tomato soup which I gave a slight sour touch to by adding aceto balsamico.
The Cocktail Nation: All that in under seven minutes. Well done!
Next, we also were able to interview Liisa Lindroos, the Finnish winner of this World Class competition, who is based in Tampere and works at the Kuuma sauna-restaurant, which also serves great cocktails. How characteristically Finnish!
The Cocktail Nation: First of all, congratulations on an excellent performance today! We enjoyed your creativity and positive energy behind the bar, and it is nice to see bartenders simply having fun, even during such an intense competition as World Class.
Liisa Lindroos: Thank you! I had great fun!
The Cocktail Nation: What was your concept for the signature serve challenge?
Liisa: The basis for my cocktail was the Ketel One vodka, which is pure and fresh, and not a complicated spirit at all. I washed this with honey comb, as I wanted to keep things simple. The amazing history of the Ketel One family fits well with the topic. It is a family focusing on hard work, and in this way the vodka is representing the beehives in my cocktail. Next, I added a honey orange cordial. The sweetness of the orange goes well with the honey, too. It represents all the flowers and plants that bees pollenate.
As honey is a sweet component, I had to add sour notes to the cocktail as well. In Finland, we have a saying which translates as “Finland is the country of honey and milk”. So I added a Finnish sour milk, which is the perfect combination with the sweetness and bitterness in the cocktail. In this way, the character of bees is also represented. They are sweet and fluffy, yes, but they also sting. They have character too.
I also made honey oil, made from pistachio and sesame oil. It gives this interesting texture, which is not going to float on your drink. In this way, after 20 minutes of sipping, you discover an entirely new aspect to the cocktail. In the end, I used bee pollen to decorate the glass but also give a salty caramel vibe to it. It makes the glass look cute and fluffy too. In this way, you have all these amazing flavours and textures coming together.
The Cocktail Nation: Sounds delicious! Can you also run us through your interpretations of the classic cocktails you made for the speed challenge?
Liisa: I wanted to keep it as simple as possible. One of the most important elements in my cocktail is that I do not want to ‘twist’ the spirits. I want to respect them, and make sure their flavours are all there. My interpretations are all ‘small twists’. I wanted to make these classic cocktails a little bit special.
My expression of a Margarita starts from the classic recipe, but I used spruce oil with a hint of salt as a rim. It’s simple, but it’s delicious!
For my Rob Roy, I made a beetroot syrup with a hint of vanilla, which really complements the Johnnie Walker Gold Label and sweet Vermouth combination, and makes it a little bit smoother too.
It is really important to re-use the components so there is no waste, so I used the same components as in my signature serve for my version of the Bee’s Knees. The orange cordial really goes well with the Tanqueray Gin, and honey is of course a mayor component of this classic cocktail.
My Old Fashioned was made with Zacapa Rum, and because this rum has chocolate and vanilla notes, I roasted milk chocolate as a garnish and I added some notes of apple too. Again, it is simple, but I like that.
I like to make my drinks vegan, not just because it is a trend right now, but also because it is better for the environment. If we have other options which are better, why not use them? So for my Whiskey Sour, I made a ‘flower foam’ based on almonds and cinnamon, which interact well with the notes of the Bulleit Bourbon, and lastly I added some orange juice instead of lemon juice.
Then I had a Bloody Mary, which was my favourite cocktail to make. I really hate the classic texture of a Bloody Mary, it is simply disgusting. Sorry! (laughing) So for my interpretation, I made a clear tomato soup, which is much more drinkable and much more liquid, and it really has the intense flavour of tomatoes. I added lots of different spices such as salt and pepper, but also some thyme, garlic, and chilli. It’s just the juice out of the tomato, the vodka, and the spices. It’s as simple as that. In the garnish, I wanted an intense flavour, so I used Asian extra hot chilli flakes.
The Cocktail Nation: Thank you very much!
Liisa: Thank you!
And thank you for reading all this! Cheers!