How far we have come

06 August, 2018

About 15 years ago, while I was the editor of Whisky Magazine, we teamed up with cutting-edge bartender Nick sSrangeway to hold a whisky cocktail competition, encouraging the use of Scottish single malt whisky.

You have to understand the context here. Whisky cocktails barely existed then. Single malt was unchartered territory to the vast majority of bars (about 99.9% in fact) and the spirit was considered both unworkable and too expensive.

Our competition attracted eight entries. We had gone for a lunchtime start but when the time came, the contestants hadn’t. When they did, they arrived in dribs and drabs, hungover, coughing and spluttering their way through what they considered an unreasonably early first cigarette of the day, one or two armed with a bacon sandwich.

I’d have been appalled, except my day was made by the priceless expression on the face of my publisher, who looked like he had accidentally stumbled on to the set of Night of the Living Dead featuring actors randomly picked from the local food bank.

The drinks weren’t great, either. Four of the contestants simply swapped their beloved vodka for single malt, and then tried to bury the strong flavours of the whisky in an avalanche of fruit juices and tonics. On balance I would say it wasn’t my finest moment.

Fast-forward to May 2018 and a gin cocktail competition featuring some of Britain’s best bar people and No.3 gin. These sort of events happen all the time these days, but this one is still impressive.

First, it is being staged in the bowels of the amazing building that is home to Berry Bros & Rudd in St James’s Street, Mayfair, London, here it is being hosted by stylish whisky ambassador, genial host and raconteur, Ronnie Cox.

Think about that. One of our most respected and established wine and spirits retailers is hosting a gin cocktail competition.

Second, consider the competitors. True, tattoos and gelled and parted short haircuts are to the fore – and that’s just the women – and there are plenty of hipster hats and bushy beards. But we’re a million miles from the Whisky Mag competition held all those years ago.

Without exception the competitors are smart, engaging, and deadly serious about their drinks. Each one presents their drink with humour, intelligence and thought.

Perhaps some of them go a little over the top on the science – we are creating a drink here after all – but the attention to detail, the preparation that has gone into each drink, and the back story – real or imagined – make the whole event a piece of theatre. Only with alcohol.

One of the judges is Alessandro Palazzi, who makes the legendary Martini at the nearby and world famous Dukes Bar. Speaking to him about the event, you realise the gap between his creations and what is happening here isn’t so great.

“There seems nothing incongruous about this coming together of different worlds, different attitudes and different generations.”

After all, at the heart of it all is a desire to create a little piece of art in a glass, and to excite and delight a customer with a surprise or a treat.

“Who would have thought that we would reach this stage,” says Ronnie Cox afterwards, with a big grin. “We have lived through amazing times.”

And we have. Long may it continue.

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