Mixology moves win Antonio Lai a trip to world cocktail-making finals
Since its establishment in 2009, Diageo's World Class has become arguably the world's most prestigious cocktail competition.
Not that there is any shortage of these. Inviting bartenders to contend in creating drinks featuring a particular product has become an essential element in the marketing strategy of many leading spirit and liqueur brands.
Diageo, the world's largest spirits consortium, has products in virtually all spirit categories, which creates a relatively level playing field between them. In this year's Hong Kong competition, Antonio Lai won with a grape vodka-based creation he calls The Sound of Ciroc.
Lai is perhaps the most internationally recognisable of Hong Kong's star bartenders, so the result of the Hong Kong and Macau final on June 9 at Zuma was not entirely surprising.
But according to Moët Hennessy Diageo's brand manager for the spirit range, Martin Newell, it was very close.
Lai was up against contenders Joao Balzani from aqua, Paul Chi Lun Chan from Brick Lane, Match Chan from the Flint Grill & Bar at the JW Marriott, Charles Chiang from The Pawn, Wallace Lau from the Butler Bar Shelter, Frederick Ma from The Woods, and Ryan Nightingale from Ham & Sherry, who had won the penultimate round.
"Going into the final, there were probably five people all with a chance of winning, and then it came down to the performance on the night. Antonio needed to execute a flawless performance, and in the opinion of the judges, he did. The showman in him came out and carried him through," says Newell.
Lai now goes to the final in Cape Town, South Africa, in September, and, along with the runners-up, to a regional competition in Bangkok in July.
Should another Hong Kong bartender win the regional round, he will go to South Africa as well.
"Antonio is our champion," Newell says. "What's happening in Bangkok is a competition for Southeast and East Asia, which is a chance for the bartenders to interact internationally and get a feel for what they will face in South Africa.
"I think Antonio is definitely in with a chance. One of the things he brings to the table is the ability to perform in front of a crowd. That shouldn't be underestimated. When you've got 100 to 200 people looking at you, to maintain your composure as you would on a regular night in a bar isn't easy."
Cocktail competitions have played a major role in establishing bartending as a respectable profession in Asia, Newell says.
"I've been involved in cocktail competitions for the better part of 11 years, and they definitely play a vital part in helping the industry to grow," he says. "I was involved in organising competitions on the mainland in 2006 and 2007, and many of the people involved in those competitions have gone on to take senior roles in the industry.
"Competitions in general have established bartending as a profession, particularly in countries where it has only been seen as a service industry."
The World Class competition covers 53 countries, which makes it the world's largest in geographical scope.
It is also an interesting test of mixologists' category preferences. Although Lai's winning entry was vodka-based, the dominant spirit chosen from Diageo's Reserve range of spirits was Tanqueray No10 gin.
"Tanqueray No10 was our most popular ingredient - in the food pairing round, 50 per cent used that and 35 per cent in the final. Gin is definitely on the way up, and you can see that in all the new gins coming into the market. Whisky as a category ties with vodka at 18 per cent of the entries in terms of its popularity in the competition," says Newell.
Lai's winning entry can be tried at Quinary, and, frankly, there's not much point in trying to make it at home. It is served in two glasses - a "Part A" and "Part B" - Part A containing Ciroc vodka, white grape juice, green grapes and Grape Gummy Candy. Part B contains Ciroc, La Quintinye vermouth, Campari and a white grape ice ball. The Part A ingredients are put into a soda siphon and then refrigerated before being squirted into the glass.
"World Class so far has had six winners, and winning is a life-changing moment," says Newell. "For me the most important thing about this competition is that it supports the training and development of bartenders. They get feedback on their performance. You take part in World Class, and it's a journey and you learn something along the way. I hope the ones that were eliminated this time will enter next year and progress further in the competition."