Lebanese mixologists shake things up for chance to join global competition
Contestants bring their own exotic ingredients to prepare truly unique beverages. (Shutterstock)
Sharp suits, tattoos and more than one handlebar moustache, you would have been forgiven for thinking Caprice had been invaded by hipsters Wednesday. Instead, the bar was playing host to 15 hopefuls, vying for the chance to represent Lebanon at the global final of the Diageo Reserve World Class competition in South Africa this September.
Lebanon has been participating in the global bartending competition since 2011, but had to skip last year’s contest when the security situation deterred international judges from coming to the country.
Relaunched in a calmer climate, this year’s event was judged by Lebanese Chef Maroun Chedid, along with Diageo Reserve World Class Bartender of the Year 2013, Spain’s David Rios and Diageo Reserve World Class Bartender of the Year 2010, Slovakia’s Erick Lorincz.
The 15 competitors at Wednesday’s event were each given 10 minutes to impress; asked to prepare a table service-ready cocktail that, of course, utilized one of the Diageo Reserve brands.
The first three minutes were to prepare their station and final seven to “present” their cocktail to the judges. This latter part went by with varying degrees of showmanship from the contestants; from a laid back I-am-who-I-am monologue from the opener to the final contestant setting his cocktail ablaze to the tunes of Johnny Cash.
Those who think a cocktail is mixing whiskey and cola together should take note. As the contestants mixed their drinks they walked the judges through each ingredient – its history and its effect on the overall flavor – with many having brought in their own homemade bitters and syrups.
While the idea of a mixologist competition might seem like just a bit of fun to many, it was clear the competitors were taking it seriously – several struggled to make a clean pour with violently shaking hands.
One man who understood what was at stake for these aspiring mixologists was judge Erick Lorincz.
Once you join the World Class competition you become part of the family he explained, and “if you become a global winner then you become a guru for the next generation of bartenders – my duty today is to go around the world judging the regionals and semifinals, up to the global final; giving my feedback to bartenders.”
On his third visit to Beirut, Lorincz told The Daily Star that he has seen a “massive progress” in the bars; with regard to bartenders and the quality of the drinks. As for Tuesday’s competitors he was impressed by the standard across the board.
“In every competition you have good drinks and those great drinks, outstanding drinks and today I found most of them outstanding.”
Asked what the judges are looking for, Lorincz explained that the bartenders have to promote their cocktail and themselves.
“He has only those magical five or seven minutes when he has the chance either to impress us or to show us he’s just not ready for it. And here you are looking for technique – how good are his skills working behind the bar; with the tools, with the ingredients.
“The presentation; how he carries himself behind the bar, how he looks behind the bar. ... And ultimately the final drink, that there is a nice harmony in the cocktail ... [and] ... eye-catching presentation; you look at the drink and think ‘wow I want to try this.’”
What made the final three stand out from the crowd Lorincz says, was the obvious research they had put into their drinks, the inspirations behind their stories and their use of ingredients that you wouldn’t normally find at a cocktail bar.
The three – who will go on to compete with the three finalists of the next event, along with a wildcard picked from both – were announced at the end of the four-hour event as Johnny Mansour, Ahmad al-Saghir and Refaat Ghostine.
Mansour, who bartends at Mar Mikhael’s Junkyard, impressed with his English Afternoon Tea inspired cocktail; offering the judges some chamomile-infused water to cleanse their palates before trying his drink. He was one of the competitors who made use of dry ice – with a smoking teapot – and presented the judges with his own syrup and bitter concoctions.
Saghir, who bartends at BistroBar in Hamra, delivered one of the calmest performances of the night – staying cool and collected as he presented his smoked cocktail before the judges. He received a shoutout from Chef Maroun at the end, who was impressed by how his chocolate spritzed with gold label complemented his drink.
It was Central Station’s Ghostine however, who gave one of the night’s most memorable performances.
Bartending, it seems, runs in the family, with Ghostine’s elder brother representing Lebanon at the 2012 World Class competition.
He himself has been behind the bar since age 16, and seemed to understand exactly what the judges were looking for; describing the presentation aspect of the competition as a “theater.”
“My presentation was inspired from the Japanese and the Chinese tea ceremonies. I wanted to do something that has some emotion, so the judges can feel what I am doing. In the bar business, Japan was one of the first leaders – from the tools, to the techniques and the drinks,” he told The Daily Star.
One of the main ingredients in his cocktail – called Tanoshimu, the Japanese for “enjoy” – was matcha, a Japanese green tea that he prepared in the traditional way.
Ghostine, who was accompanied by oriental music, split his cocktail into two, so he could present it in both the Japanese tradition; shared from a single bowl and the Chinese tradition; drunk from separate cups.
Telling the judges to imagine they were in a tea garden, Ghostine wafted Jasmine steam in their direction using a Japanese fan, prompting cheers from the audience usually reserved for contestants’ flair with the shaker.
The three still have hurdles to pass before it is decided who will represent Lebanon at the global final. Wednesday’s event, however, showed there is a lot more skill behind bartending than is often credited to these aspiring mixologists.
By Susan Wilson