Updated: Mar 29
When someone mentions cocktails you don't normally think about Uzbekistan, right? In fact I doubt most of you can point out the country on the world map & thats okay. So imagine our excitement & shirt surprise when Diageo Central Asia called us up to invite us to Tashkent in order to support & judge their Diageo Bartender Academy Challenge local finals? We strapped into our seatbelts, held on to our hats & were in for one wild ride
Little bit of background: The central Asian region is home to what a lot of people to refer to as the 'Stans' & the 3 countries taking part in the competition were - Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan & Kazakhstan. There region is home to over 70 million people in total & currently developing rapidly as the countries in the region are becoming more accessible & opening up to Western influence. In this case cocktails are in town & becoming big business in the region. The Diageo Bartender Academy Challenge is a competition in its 2nd year in the region to help young bartenders learn, train & practice their craft. We were lucky enough to be invited this year to both judge the competition, cover the event & explore the local bartending community.
The competition: The competition itself is a lot harder than most normal competitions we've attended in the past & pushes bartenders to their limits in terms of creativity, flow, improvisation, knowledge & technical skills. The entire event is broken down to 4 different challenges spread over the course of two days hosted in the capitol city of Tashkent, Uzbekistan. This was the regional finals of the three neighbouring countries but there were previously three local heats that took place where the top 3 bartenders would go onto the regionals. In the end each country would both decide a champion that would on go on to the global finals held later this year in Bucharest, Romania. And an overall champion with the highest score would also be picked & crowned at the winner of the region.
Like I'd mentioned previously there were 4 challenges in total: - Classic with a Twist - Social Media Challenge - Marketplace Challenge - Q&A Each challenge was created & specifically tailored by Kenji Jesse on behalf of Diageo to help challenge the competitors to their utmost limits. Originally the marketplace challenge was also held as a secret from the finalists so that they couldn't prepare in advance. So let's break down every single one of those tasks below.
Classic with a Twist: Competitors would choose one of 5 cards available to them face down. On those cards would be 5 classic drinks that every bartender the world over should know & love! The drinks were - Vesper Martini, Mint Julep, Daiquiri, Whiskey Sour & Old Fashioned. Upon picking a card the bartender has 5 mins to prepare 3 versions of the drink - a classic & 2 twists on the original. It is also favourable to drop knowledge bombs during your round in order to impress the judges.
Although all of this sounds simple enough in the offset the twist is that you really can't tell which cocktail you're going to get. So in reality the bartender had to prepare to potentially create 10 original cocktails just for the first challenge & 8 of them you wouldn't even get to make! This is insane!
Social Media Challenge: This challenge felt close to home as it was designed with Cocktails For You in mind. We'd shared our seminar about "The Power of Social Media" with all the attendees & the challenge was to create drinks that would be 'Instagrammable' or 'Social Media' friendly. Although this definitely sounds a little vague to most bartenders as we tend to focus on other things during our job with the expansion of social media all over the world it is becoming increasingly important to make sure your cocktails can be shared across the internet to attract guests to your venue.
Again all of this sounds simple enough but you this is a challenge of personal willpower & breaking of comfort zones. You have to force yourself to think in a different way as a bartender as the aim is to NOT ONLY to create a delicious beverage but to find a way to make it viral on the internet. Obviously you couldn't test anything beforehand as you would be giving away your secrets!
Straightforward but also the hardest test in my opinion to all the locals. Limited budget & limited time in the biggest local market full of inspiration, ingredients & spices. The task here to come up with an original cocktail somehow inspired by what you found in the marketplace during your time there. This is where I believe things can go so well or so badly depending on your ability as a bartender.
For me personally this is one of the toughest challenges as all of the bartenders are locals one way or another. Here the test would be to show how you can stand out to the crowd when everyone literally had the same background & the same cultural information to play with.
They saved the hardest until the last! The bartenders have the opportunity to curate a minimum of 3 unique questions to each judge. They can either be the same or completely different & based on the answers given to them come up with cocktails on the spot that reflect what the judges want. Very often when it comes to judging cocktail competitions there is very little that surprises me & I always think about how would I approach this challenge.
This is the one where literally the possibilities are endless & yet I couldn't come up with a solution for myself personally as how I would do this. This was the one that really separated the champions from the competitors & experience really helped in this round.
Highlights: It is always difficult to judge a competition & to be completely unbiased & fair. We all have our preferences, perspectives & approach to the same set of rules. Regardless of that fact I have come to strongly believe that the most creative, unique & mind-blowing experiences are usually born from places like Central Asia. The bartenders from this region showed a level of creativity that I haven't seen in a long time & I honestly was blown away by some of the ingredients, techniques & presentations I saw during the Diageo Bartenders Academy Challenge. But there is always a winner...
The Freddie Mercury moment...
So without a further a do I present to you the champions of the Diageo Bartenders Academy Challenge: Kazakhstan: Maxim Kosminin Uzbekistan: Alishev Zhabarov Kyrgyzstan: Vadim Sachkov