I have been silent lately, and for that I apologize but I offer no excuse. I am still recovering. I fucking did it. Things still feel a bit unreal right now. I was one of three competitors from the Midwest to advance to national finals for the World Class bartending competition. It was insane. Long, weird road to Kansas City, and I was fully expecting not to win. In fact, I was quite certain one of my other friends and fine competitors had it in the bag.
I was in Minneapolis a few months ago, and my friend Dustin (who has appeared in these posts a few times. He’s a badass) pushed me to apply for this World Class thing. I had watched several years of the global competition series online, and sort of brushed it off as a “well, that will be fun, but no chance in hell I’ll make it in.” But I looked at the application online, printed off the stuff, and set about fulfilling the essay/menu requirements.
My first task was to design a five-drink menu that represented my ideal cocktail list. I was in the middle of working on a new seven-drink menu for Vikre, so no big deal. The more the merrier, as they say. I got to practice stuff at Zeitgeist, and try to come up with these drinks. I used Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue as the framework. The album has five tracks, and I needed five drinks. It was clever. Blue in Green was a whiskey highball with green spirulina soda and some pea flower ice (blue ice in a green drink. Get it?) All Blues was some blue curacao, green chartreuse, lime juice and vodka. It was a piercing blue, one of the prettiest cocktails I’ve made. Flamenco Sketches was a Don Julio Manhattan with Cocchi and Bittercube’s Corazon bitters. So What was a Tanqueray-Aperol-orange juice mint thingy. Freddie Freeloader was the drink I described in detail for the competition. Zacapa 23 rum, muddled celery, velvet falernum, lime juice and salt: rich, savory, with some fun vegetal bitterness. I played with the drink until I determined the best combination of those flavor elements. Zacapa is a hell of a rum to play with. I also spent more money at the liquor store in the months before this competition than I ever have before.
The essays were intense. Questions were:
- What steps did you take to get to your current position? What is fulfilling about it? What have you done today that will make you a better bartender than you were yesterday?
- You have a guest at your bar that is having a bad experience, either with a drink, their reservation, food or service. How would you win them back and make them a regular guest at your bar?
- Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your current bar team. On what key areas of development should your team focus to improve its overall performance? How could you facilitate those improvements?
On top of those, I had to explain the menu choices I made and talk about why it represents my ideal list. I learned so much from thinking about these questions, and I will be revisiting them occasionally as I grow in this profession. I typed up long, witty and genuine responses to all of the questions, and went into the application to submit a day or so before the deadline. Turns out, there was a 250-word limit for each of the questions, and my shortest answer was well over 800 words. Chop chop chop! I had to cut all of my jokes, sadly.
The wait was a few weeks, after which I received an email telling me I didn’t make it but that I was an alternate. The first announcement of the regional finalists did not include my name, but did include a roster of amazing folks at bars all over the Midwest, with strong representation from the Chicago area. Good for them! I had already gained so much from just applying for the competition. I missed a phone call a few days later, and got a text from an unknown number saying she had urgent USBG business to discuss. I called her back and I was informed that someone was unable to compete. She was wondering if I wanted to go to World Class. I absolutely did, and I was sent the toolkit with the regional challenges and rules for competition. It was shocking, to say the least. I wasn’t expecting to advance at all, but I was and remain so grateful for the opportunity. I told folks and mostly the response was “oh, that’s cool! What’s World Class?” A few dear friends of mine had also followed the global competition and sort of understood what was at stake eventually.
The challenges were also intense, of course. I asked folks at Zeitgeist if I could come behind the bar and practice Sunday evenings while I developed these drinks. Challenge one was called Sense and Nonsense. I had to make two variations of the same classic cocktail, enhancing or diminishing a sense other than taste in the presentation of each drink. Challenge two was Before and After. I had to design an aperitif and a digestif to accompany any menu of any bar or restaurant, real or imaginary. The last challenge was a speed round, four classic drinks in six minutes. I could only prepare three of the recipes ahead of time, the fourth, from a list of 25, was to be given out at the beginning of my prep time for that round.
It’s difficult to describe the work that went into preparing for these challenges. Most of them started in a small notebook as a series of stream-of-consciousness scribbles. They evolved into actual cocktails, but more so turned into these stories I wanted to tell. What I settled on was a set of three presentations that spoke from my personal and professional history, in and out of the bar, but more on that later.
My girlfriend left for a European vacation a week and a half before I was scheduled to fly to Kansas City. It was just me and the cat at home. I wrote out lists, made ingredients, designed presentation props, tweaked recipes, gathered glassware, bought luggage, bottled and sealed my house-made components, and generally collected myself for this adventure. I was nervous, but as I boarded the plane, there was an odd sense of calm. I had done the work. For better or worse, it was really too late to worry about it. Believe me, I had spent enough time fretting over these presentations.
I got to Kansas City and grabbed my luggage, covered in “Fragile” stickers, and hoped nothing had broken in transit. At this point I had no idea what to do. I think I knew the name of my hotel, but not how far away it was. I called one of the numbers on the contact info sheet, and reached Amy, who it turns out was the woman that called me about advancing to regionals in the first place. She was a few gates down in an uber, and picked me up twenty seconds later to go to the hotel. We chatted a bit, and arrived at an amazing hotel in downtown KC. I checked in and was handed a bottle of gin from Tom’s Town Distillery, just a few blocks away. I put my stuff in my room and unpacked my suitcases nervously. Nothing broke! All of my housemade ingredients survived the flight, all of the glassware was intact and nothing even leaked. My room was a mess, bottles and tools strewn about. I went back downstairs and remained mostly on the periphery of the growing mass of barfolk from around the region. The conference was broader than the World Class competition, and brought leadership and members from guild chapters all over. I introduced myself to a few folks and made some initial friendships, and then we walked en masse to our first dinner of the week. Maker’s Mark and the Rieger hosted a beefsteak dinner with cocktail and whisky components. At our places were aprons and a paper hat. There was no silverware to be found. This was a truly family-style meal, giant plates of shrimp, marrow, vegetables and the eponymous beefsteak making their way around the table. I sat across from Andrew Meltzer, who was to be one of my judges during the competition, and Egor, a fellow competitor. I should note here that I intentionally didn’t research any of my judges. I wanted to be able to serve two strangers at my bar for each of the challenges, something I’ve done every day behind the stick for four years. I didn’t know Andrew was a judge. He was just a jovial and sassy dinner companion. One of the competitors, Jason, was a human I had been looking forward to meet. We were Facebook friends, and for some reason, I just knew we would vibe. He sat across the room, but on the way to his seat, pointed at me and smiled, and thus began a friendship that endures beyond those few days.
After the dinner, we were split into teams and unleashed on a bar-crawl/scavenger hunt spanning ten different locations across downtown. Some of them were bars, with sponsored beverages at those locations. Our team hustled to get to the first four locations, and then saw other teams in cabs, and decided to go to the bars only. We abandoned the stressful quest for good company, good conversation and some stupid delicious drinks. There was a speakeasy-style place in the basement of a hotel lobby, accessed only by going to the desk person and asking to have a conversation with “The Boss”. The hospitality was overwhelming. I made some dear friends in my team, and we made our way to the last bar, the meeting place for the end of the night.
After a few minutes, the whole MSP crew rolled in (minus Rob Jones. Oyster incident…) and hugs were liberally exchanged. It was fucking amazing to see those humans, familiar faces and supportive friends. We drank, we told stories, and then I walked back to the hotel. As I headed back downtown, it started to rain lightly, adding that wet pavement smell to a gorgeous night. I got back to the room and watched something dumb on Netflix. By watched, I mean I put it on but sat with my thoughts in a crisp and cozy hotel bed. I had a gorgeous view of the city from my window, and smiled in anticipation of the next few days. I had met a few of the competitors and congratulated them over the course of the day, and I found out that we had to move hotels the next day, a few blocks down the road to the President, a gorgeous old building. I woke up early to repack all my shit and check out. I skipped out on the conference activities to go over flashcards with Jason, cementing those 25 classic drinks for the speed round. We had lunch at Extra Virgin, an amazing Mediterranean style place. Jason and I were planning trips to the grocery store, a hardware store and laying out the schedule for the afternoon. There was an awesome market a few blocks from our new hotel where we acquired some of the last touches for our drinks.
I went back to the hotel, and met some of the other competitors at the hotel bar to hang out and talk shop. I’ve never been surrounded by folks who nerd out as hard or harder than I do about drinks. It was so humanizing to be able to exchange stories about shitty customers, amazing drinks, bad drinks and obscure spirits. Going into this competition, I had this notion that it was going to be competitive, and that I was best served by keeping my planned presentations a secret. This was absolutely not the case. We all started talking about how we interpreted these challenges, and it was so inspiring to hear from these talented minds. I think that sort of dissolved any hesitations I had about folks. Ice was thoroughly broken. It makes sense, though. At that point, it was far too late for any of us to take someone’s idea and incorporate it into our spiel. We went outside to go to dinner, with a few Diageo and USBG gals, and our limousine pulled up. We got a stretch Hummer limo for the evening. #worldclass. Fitting 12 dudes into that limo was hilarious. At this point, we were all laughing and exchanging witticisms. By witticisms, I mostly mean dirty jokes. The competitor dinner was a lovely affair at the Belfry, and the owner and her badass daughter (had to have been twelve years old) took such wonderful care of us. We mingled with reps from Diageo and folks that worked for the organization. Mostly we told stories about ourselves and got to know one another over a few drinks and some silly good food. It was relaxing to spend time with everyone. We were all on the same page. We had prepared and practiced and tasted and worked our asses off to get here. This was a unique mental and emotional space we could share and enjoy with each other. At the end of the meal we received our folders which told us who we were grouped with and what order we would be going about our challenges throughout the next day. We walked across the street for after dinner cocktails and more carousing. After an hour or so, we got back in the limo and were dropped off at the hotel. I walked into the room and on the bed was a lovely gift package. A few Tshirts, some Bulleit swag, and a letter. The letter was from Andrew, last year’s US bartender of the year. In it, he encouraged us to value the connections we were making with fellow bartenders. It was oddly emotional. I definitely did not expect to cry. His last bits of advice read: “Remember to smile, be yourself, and taste your cocktails.” I had sat across the table from this man, eating bone marrow with my fingers, licking said fingers and wiping excess grease on an apron. It meant the world to hear his voice say those words as I read that letter.
Then the real work began.
Jason and I planned to meet in the lobby and go over cocktail flashcards and run through our ideas. I went down a bit early and asked the bartender if she had any coffee. She brewed us a fresh pot. Pam, I think was her name. She saved my life and I owe much of any resulting success from those cups of coffee from 1-6 am. Jason and I attached specific labels to each ingredient in the cocktail recipes to make the speed round go easier. We quizzed each other on brand knowledge (Don Julio was a tequila made by his sons to honor his sixtieth birthday, a man who had been distilling since he was seventeen. I know that now.) We smoked too many cigarettes. We took a break to our rooms sometime roundabout 3 or 4 in the morning, I think. I set up my suitcase full of essential items for the competition, planned out my speed round accounting for the tiny rail during that challenge, started going through my stories again for the other two challenges and timing myself. I had tried to script these stories, but I discovered that I sound more like myself when I had only an outline and filled it in with only mildly rehearsed words. These were my stories. I knew them, I lived them. They meant something to me. I think it was 5 am when I texted Jason to see if he was awake still. “Duh, dude.” We smoked some more cigarettes and he listened to my presentation. He brought me to his room and ran me through his insanely gorgeous Japanese tea ceremony he was presenting for one of the challenges. We tried some of our housemade stuff, and smoked more cigarettes. Seriously, I could not have done any of this competition without that human.
I went back to my room and just sat in this dark space looking out on the city. All my stuff was packed and ready to go to the competition venue. I read and re-read that letter from Andrew. It already felt so surreal. Not like I had won already, but like I didn’t care if I won or lost. I couldn’t think of any one of those dudes I wanted to lose. My voice was already getting a little hoarse from laughing, and cigarettes, probably, but mostly laughing.
[Note. I am at a bar writing this, and it’s so hard to describe that space. I am tearing up a bit just thinking about that feeling.]
I sat in bed, mind churning, embracing that hollow feeling that comes with too much caffeine and being alert at an hour when most of the world is asleep. A giant billboard of the “Can you hear me now?” guy (now working for Sprint, it seems) and the inconsistent headlights of cars on the highway below were the last sights I took in before closing the blinds. I lay down, and set my alarm for 6:30 am. It was 6 am. I had the weirdest sleep for that half hour. It was like I remembered being asleep. I woke up and texted Jason, who hadn’t slept at all. We were going to meet in the lobby at 7 to go grab some snacks and things.
I woke up with the biggest shit-eating grin on my face. I was so excited to do this. I wasn’t sure if I was prepared, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to freak out about it at that point. I showered, the last few minutes I left it on full cold, just for kicks. I already had a song stuck in my head. I think it started with “Voodoo Chile” by Stevie Ray Vaughan, but at some point during my shower, it changed to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”. I realized how appropriate that was and just kept it going. I had that song stuck in my head for three goddamn hours. It was amazing. I danced on the sidewalk as we went to grab some snacks. Jason had headphones in, and was in his own zone. I think I was beginning to amuse myself. I have never had a feeling like that before. It was almost mischievous. I wanted to cause trouble, in a weird way. It was like after that first shot of rye whiskey on your night off when you’re going out with no plans and meet up with friends and get crazy eyes and bar hop and make new friends and jump in the lake naked at 4 am and you’re still the last one to go to sleep. That’s what I woke up with.
Jason and I bought like seven clif bars, a handful of Red Bulls, and some Gatorade and went back to the hotel to meet our limo. All of the competitors were outside, and this time we got to ride with just the twelve of us. I could see everyone in a different zone, some with headphones and music, some trading clever chit chat, some singing songs or texting. This was my new, weird family, in a sense. We were all about to go through a long, strenuous day of competition and come out having strengthened bonds we’d already begun to form.