Let’s hear it for the movers and shakers of the BAR Awards, the Oscars of the drinks industry.

Let’s hear it for the movers and shakers of the BAR Awards, the Oscars of the drinks industry.

Over the last few years, it’s been a great pleasure not only to report on the drinks industry, but to become more and more involved in it. Whenever I chat to “outsiders” about a new bar or brand, or the latest rockstar bartender, I’m acutely reminded just how entrenched I actually am. It’s easy to forget that bar competitions are completely alien to the majority of South Africans … which brings me to the Bartender Accolades and Recognition Awards. 

Normally held around March with much glitz and glam, the BAR Awards celebrate the movers and shakers of the South African bar scene from the previous year, including best bartenders, brands and bars. Voting takes place a month or two before, by invitation.

For obvious reasons, the ceremony was not its usual red-carpet affair this year, but it was no less anticipated by those in the know – a welcome occasion for celebration, given the tumultuous year the drinks industry has had.

Instead, the event went virtual in September, with small watch parties held around the land.

For anyone in the local drinks arena, being nominated in the BAR Awards is a significant feather in their cap. A win, however, can be career changing. I say this from experience, having had the honour twice now; it’s not only opened global doors from a work standpoint, but on occasion has even resulted in the strange experience of being treated like a celebrity.

Let me introduce you to this year’s categories, and the winners.

COCKTAIL BAR OF THE YEAR 

The Art of Duplicity © @benjamin.reisner

Perhaps the most coveted award on the list, the Cocktail Bar of the Year honours the bar that has the best cocktail programme, rivalling cocktail bars around the world. By this I mean that it has a carefully crafted cocktail menu, that employs cutting-edge techniques and features fascinating ingredients and flavour profiles. 

The previous two winners, Cape Town’s Cause | Effect and Joburg’s Sin + Tax, were nominated again, however it was Art of Duplicity that took the tribute. Situated in a secret location in the Mother City, this speakeasy is a Shangri-la for cocktail geeks, but also makes for a smashing date night for “normals”. As it won Best New Cocktail Bar last year, this was a natural progression for the bar.

MAIN MARKET/LOCAL BAR OF THE YEAR

Smoking Kills

Now a bar doesn’t have to go nuts to be good; there’s plenty of joy to be found at your favourite neighbourhood bar … the one you head to after work to unwind, or to maybe grab a bite. It doesn’t matter if you’re still in your suit or are wearing your dodgiest quarantine attire, you’re always made to feel welcome when you visit, and the bartender probably knows your name as well as your drink order.

Interestingly, two Khayelitsha bars were nominated here, namely Rands and Kwa Ace, but Smoking Kills Bar – a wonderful dive bar in Melville, Joburg, took the title.

HIGH-VOLUME COCKTAIL BAR OF THE YEAR

It’s one thing to be able to craft a fine cocktail in a quiet environment, it’s another to consistently push out high quality libations under pressure. While the bar’s cocktail concepts don’t have to be mind-blowing to secure this award, the drinks need to be reliable.

As a regular at The House of Machines in Cape Town, I can attest to the fact that it deserves this win. In fact, The House won last year too, so there’s no doubt about it. The team there throws out Old Fashioneds and Manhattans like nobody’s business, and they never fail to hit the spot.

HOTEL BAR OF THE YEAR

Gigi Bar at Gorgeous George © Sean Gibson Photography

A bar is very much part of the hotel package. At a good hotel bar, you can sip a world-class cocktail in snazzy surrounds, and be treated like the king or queen you are. You might not know anyone in town, but here you should feel at home.

For some reason all the nominees were Cape bars, including last year’s winner, Bascule Bar at Cape Grace. The winning bar was Gigi at Gorgeous George, an absolutely stunner of a rooftop venue overlooking St Georges Mall. The venue has taken its beverage programme seriously from the start, always recruiting solid bartenders, so this makes perfect sense.

NEW COCKTAIL BAR OF THE YEAR

This one recognises the new kid on the block, which opened its doors during the previous calendar year. The cocktail programme itself may still be a work in progress, but it should show serious promise. Two winners on this list were nominated here, namely Gigi at Gorgeous George and Smoking Kills Bar, but Vicious Virgin ultimately won. 

A tiki bar in Cape Town, Vicious only just made the cut, opening in late December. It has since closed down.

TRAILBLAZER OF THE YEAR 

The innovators, the visionaries, the mad geniuses. These are the individuals who not only set trends, but who bring altogether new techniques to the table. We’re living in 2020, and these whiz kids are in 2030.

The finalists here were all worthy characters, including Joburg boys George Hunter of Copper Monkey and Anvil Ice; Evert De Jong of Molecular Bars; and Julian Short of Sin+Tax. However, Brent Perremore, the mastermind behind Cocktail Bar of the Year Art of Duplicity, most assuredly deserved this win. 

BARTENDER OF THE YEAR

George Hunter

When it comes to individual recognition, this is the overall prize of prizes at the BAR Awards. The winner not only excels at the art of cocktail making, but is passionate, creative and inventive. They are simply amazing at what they do.

Two trailblazer finalists were nominated here too, namely George Hunter and Julian Short, which goes to show how the two awards interface. Hunter, a global competition winner and massively respected drinkslinger took the crown. Short took the title last year.

INTERNATIONAL FOOTPRINT AWARD

Who’s best represented South Africa abroad? Who’s gained international attention for their skills, ideas or knowledge? This award rewards the individual who’s killing it on the global stage, and making the country proud. 

Julian Short, who won last year, was nominated again, as well as Kurt Schlechter, who you may have read about in the Bar World 100. However, it was our man George Hunter, Bartender of the Year, who stole the show.

SOCIAL MEDIA CONTRIBUTOR AWARD

If it’s not online it never happened. Anyone who’s affiliated with the industry can be nominated for this award, provided they’ve used their platform to add value to the bar, brand or event they’ve represented. This could include bartenders, ambassadors or even event management crew.

Pete Lebese, also known as Thee Gintleman, took this award for the second time running. A freelance bartender, consultant and entertainer, Lebese totally rocks the socials, bringing a smile to all who follow him.

MEDIA CONTRIBUTOR OF THE YEAR

Leah van Deventer © Crave Concepts

According to the official award definition, “this category is dedicated to someone who has a valued opinion about things in our industry … the person who regularly contributes and is dedicated to documenting and recording events and happenings of the trade, and who has a reach to market … Their opinion is respected and sought after.”

I’m thrilled to have been honoured with this award for the second time running, and to have my name featured alongside the people I so admire on this list. It sure beats covering the economy.

MENTOR OF THE YEAR

Nurturing those around them, mentors act as confidants, cheerleaders and advisers. This individual has demonstrated patience, wisdom and selflessness in advancing the careers of their mentees.

Cassandra Eichhoff, owner of European Bartender School in Cape Town, was yet another “repeat offender”, having won this award last year too. Although just 30, Cass is wise beyond her years, and is deeply devoted to education and upliftment.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR

Tanealé Van Der Merwe

The rookie. The protégé. The new recruit. Promising newcomers to the drinks game need to be nurtured and rewarded. These youngsters are the future of the industry. 

I look forward to following the careers of each of the contenders for this award, namely Katlego Manyathi, Ryan Ontong and Arty Java. Tanealé Van Der Merwe of The Little Fox in Joburg certainly raised the stakes when she soared into the top six of Diageo World Class competition though, demanding industry attention right off the bat. Go, girl!

BAR TEAM OF THE YEAR

In reality, a bar is only as good as its team. Responsible for not only all the moving parts involved to get the job done, the staff culture sets the scene for the general atmosphere for a venue, and ultimately for the guest experience. 

Two previous winners made the finalists, namely Cause | Effect and Sin + Tax, as well as Art of Duplicity. The winning team was Vicious Virgin in Cape Town, which as mentioned has since closed down.

LIQUOR STORE OF THE YEAR

Who stocks the best booze, brings in the most exciting mixers and boasts the most knowledgeable staff? If you want to be in the loop, at the cutting edge of the spirits business, this is where you should shop.

Each of the finalists here were excellent contenders, including Bar Keeper, Liquor City Claremont and Woodstock Liquors, all in Cape Town. Norman Goodfellows – a solid supplier to bars around country, was rewarded with this accolade.

OTHER AWARDS

The last few awards are more industry focused, so I’ll combine them briefly here. Firstly, we have the Brand Ambassador of the Year. This is your charmer, whose job it is to woo media and bartenders alike. Jody Francis of Inverroche in Cape Town won this one again, after tying for it last year. 

The Brand Campaign/Event of the Year recognises the best competition, activation or masterclass. Rather than just being a closet advert, the events here must have facilitated industry growth. Inverroche Pioneers manged to knock Diageo World Class off its pedestal this year, after winning in 2019 and 2018.

There’s no one better placed to pick the best liquor brands than bartenders themselves. Winners of the Bartenders Brand of Choice award may be new to market, or may have outshone other brands in the calendar year. Inverroche has clearly had a good year, as Inverroche Gin won here too, after Bulleit Bourbon won the last two years.

Molecular Bars

Not all bars have a fixed home, but rather they service events like weddings, birthdays and so on. For the Mobile Bar Operator of the Year, skills like trouble-shooting on the fly are paramount, as is the ability to mix up great drinks in a mobile environment. The winner was once again Molecular Bars in Joburg, which won last year too. Finally, while the Pop-Up Bar of the Year may not strictly be a brand operation, by definition it’s a thing of the past, so less pertinent to you, the reader. In this case, it wasactually a brand event, being won by Craigellachie, who hosted a pop-up at Athletic Club & Social in Cape Town.

This post first appeared on Daily Maverick on 9 October 2020