Bar Wars: Inside The World's Largest Bartending Competition

Spoiler: not a hint of Tom Cruise in sight

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Every industry has awards these days (there are even awards for awards professionals – bet that night's a laugh), so it's no surprise that the drinks world should be the same. And how do you test a barman? You get him to make drinks – lots and lots of drinks.

Created in 2009, Diageo's World Class bartending competition is recognized as the largest and most prestigious of them all. Using the company's widely known range of spirits (from Tanqueray gin to Ketel One vodka, Don Julio tequila and Bulleit bourbon – turns out they make nigh-on everything), competitors go through round upon round in their own countries, being tested on speed, invention, palate, service and more, before making it into the Global Finals each year. And where are these finals held? Oh no, no – not the local town hall. These guys always jet off somewhere new. This time, they headed to Miami to try their hand on South Beach.

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With 56 of the world's top barmen cooped up in one place, you might expect to walk into party central – for the hallways to take on a rip-roaring life of their own, a constant buzz interjected by the sounds of doors slamming, bottles smashing and the boisterous roars of that international bonding fail-safe: the drinking game. But this is business. Drink-making, cocktail-shaking, mixology – whatever you want to call it – is more serious than you could possibly imagine.

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Nicolás Muñoz, Chile

The corridors have the low hum of achingly diligent preparation discreetly taking place behind their walls. Occasionally, a furtive head will pop out as you walk past, as though you've trodden too heftily on the carpets. I once inadvertently passed the British competitor's room, and was hastily ushered in as though loitering around a military base, lest I was caught spying outside. Though identical in décor to the others, this one seemed more like the back room of a distillery after a lock-in, such was the alcoholic disarray. But hey ho, what fun, I thought – let's see what actually goes on here before a challenge. How are the final touches, the last little bits of pizazz going? Packing up a few fireworks ready to take downstairs so as to really get our next round going with a bang?

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Nope. The UK's World Class Bartender of the Year, Aidan Bowie (of Dandelyan) and one of his two mentors were staring forlornly at a charred pineapple. Well, a charred pineapple top, to be precise; the pineapple's base had been hollowed out, covered in wax (obviously), filled with cocktail, and the leaves unceremoniously plonked back in. But because it was now in liquid rather than solid fruit, the greenery was lolling around somewhat listlessly. Not much pizazz here. The two men looked as ashen as new fathers surveying the wreckage of a house after the first full night alone on baby duty – utterly exhausted and entirely outwitted by this tropical fruit of an offspring. The anxious concentration on their faces was immediately discernible, as was the smell of burning. Stepping onto the balcony for some air, my shoes stuck to the sugary floor. "Oh yeah, careful out there," one of them murmured without breaking his gaze. Suddenly the door burst open with the other tutor brandishing a special piece of kit he'd been scouring the hotel for. This brought new excitement, and debates resumed on how to master the drink's aesthetics.

This is what you have to accept when you're surrounded by the great and the good of the beverage industry: drinks matter. Like, they really, really matter. The ingredients in them matter, the glassware matters, the embellishments and garnishes and sprinkles and straws and mini umbrellas and bits of fruit and sparkle and glitter all matter. Any and every aspect of you walking into a bar – from the chairs you sit on to the music tinkering away in the background, to how you're handed the bill – has been meticulously thought out, since it could be the difference between you staying for one more or not, between you coming back another night and not.

Aidan Bowie, UK

Said pineapple trick was meant to impress the judges by showing that Aidan had a sound understanding of current and forthcoming cocktail trends. His use of homemade tinctures, cordials and wines across all three of his inventions did the job and, spoiler alert: plenty of pineapple, a fair amount of banana and a smidgen of honey are coming your way.

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The contenders were also tested on their celebrity acumen with a beach bar set up ready to welcome some famous but, sadly, imaginary couples ranging from the Obamas to Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman, based on a roll of the wheel of fortune (launched by an obliging model who wouldn't have been out of place on a Baywatch set). The objective was to produce tailored beverages whilst putting the guests at ease, and a lucky spin granted Aidan the gift of Jay-Z and Beyoncé, who he just so happens to have served back in London. His polite form of nonchalance was not shared by all of his competitors, some of whom recognised their own limitations and opted for near silence, some hitting the gimmicks inadvisably hard.

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Other preliminaries involved creating apéritif and digestif combinations suitable for one's own fantasy restaurant, and the Mastermind moment: the whisky challenge. With a Scot in our corner, the Brits were in safe hands as the contenders sat silently along a table top, blind-tasting neat Johnnie Walker and noting which particular single malts had gone into it, and in what proportions, on an examination paper that looked like an interactive maths-cum-geography riddle for grown-ups. Well before the klaxon, Mr. GB was sitting pretty with what would transpire to be the highest score in the competition; whilst his opponents scribbled fiercely away at their answer sheets he had just sailed us into the final 12.

D-Day was the speed round, in which these finalists had 10 minutes to make up to 14 classic American cocktails. It's the challenge most feared and most talked about every year, not to mention the most awkward to watch. Although this element of the competition becomes bizarrely extreme (there is shouting and cheering and count downs; bottles smash through jittering hands and garnishes get shoved into glasses with sheer, quivering panic), it is also the one with the greatest practical application: if you're in a bar and you want your drink, then you need your bartender to be able to cope even when the place gets busy. So speed is a gift. And a rare one: you can easily toss liquid into an obliging vessel but it's also got to be swallow-able.

Spain's Adriana Chia high fives judge Erik Lorincz after a successful speed round

Unfortunately, we flunked this one – a hazard of having such a young protégée in our corner – but it would be difficult to get too downhearted with such vivacious stuff happening from the other nations. (Spain, for example, instigated a full-on fiesta, getting the audience clapping to some heavy metal remixes at full blast.) This is where flair – the generally frowned upon art of throwing bottles and glassware around like a majorette – becomes a dangerous pleasure: if you can hold a crowd's attention, dance to some music, throw shit in the air AND make a quaffable cocktail, all within your deadline, then you become akin to a rockstar. But otherwise, Tom Cruise impressions are soooo not cool in the bar world.

The final six then had 24 hours to construct their own pop-up bars from scratch before a gala-style event that welcomed a thirsty Florida crowd (and the ousted competitors) in for sampling. And bartenders, though the most sporting of colleagues, are a brutally honest bunch – if they don't like something, they say it, loudly – so this last leg is extra nerve-wracking once your international peers start their critiques.

The World Class Global Finalists

Ultimately, the crown went to Jennifer Le Nechet of France. She's the first woman to win the title and now spends the year acting as an ambassador for the World Class organisation, which equates to more than just a party bus: the Diageo Bar Academy is a social responsibility program there to train and mentor bar professionals throughout their careers, using tools like the World Class competition as development. From what you see at contests such as this, there may be blood, sweat and tears involved, and these folks may take cocktails a fraction more seriously than you or I tend to, but they at least know how to laugh it all off and say 'Cheers!' at the end of the day. And who else would you want standing behind a bar when you wander in?

World Class Bartender of the Year: Jennifer Le Nechet, France

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