The 2019 Diageo Reserve World Class South African Regional Finals were held across the land in May.
Yours truly had the honour of being a judge alongside Travis Kuhn, 2018 World Class winner, and Haroon Haffajee, two-time second-placer and ex Reserve Brand Ambassador for Durban.
My place on the panel was a privilege earned following five years of scrutinising the competition from the media corner, and supporting it via various articles, interviews and social media posts.
Indeed, as a cocktail and spirits writer I’ve been lucky enough to judge several cocktail competitions, and technically this wasn’t my first time in the World Class judge’s seat either; Dom de Lorenzo – 2015 winner and current Reserve Brand Ambassador for Joburg – invited me to judge the Cape Town World Class Reserve Invites with him in 2017, but that was a small offshoot of the main event.
Certainly, Diageo’s World Class Competition is unlike any other: it’s a gruelling affair that tests the mettle of the country’s – and the world’s – finest bartenders through a series of increasingly difficult challenges.
For this year’s regionals, the contestants had to jump through two fiery hoops. First up was the Six in Five challenge, in which participants had to make – you guessed it – six cocktails in five minutes … Cocktails of their own creation, no less, featuring Ketel One Vodka, Don Julio Reposado Tequila or The Singleton of Dufftown 12YO, each part of the Diageo Reserve portfolio.
Assuming the hopefuls could complete the task, each judge was given two of the said cocktails to sample, judging them based on bartending technique, excitement and entertainment, cocktail creativity, and cocktail aroma, taste and expression of the spirit.
I love a good speed round. It’s undoubtedly the most thrilling challenge in any cocktail competition, and sitting front and centre as a judge is even more nail-biting. You really have to fight the urge to stand up and cheer, white-knuckling your clipboard instead as the timer counts down…
Your Bar or Mine was a more leisurely (but certainly not easy) challenge; here, competitors used their six minutes to present a Bulleit Bourbon serve that represented a bar that had inspired them in their bartending career.
This isn’t just about making a decent drink; judges marked them for bartending technique, hosting and storytelling, cocktail creativity, bringing the bar to life, cocktail aroma and taste, and expression of the spirit.
What really impressed me here was how adept some of the bartenders were in transporting us to their bar of choice. My three favourites in this regard were Pete Lebese, who had us sit on crates playing dice to recreate his uncle’s tavern; Brent Perremore, who conducted a bootlegger’s funeral for Death and Co; and Karl Rohlandt, who cleverly (and boldly) illustrated the Golden Ratio of cocktails from Canon: Whiskey and Bitters Emporium by getting us to play roulette to determine his cocktail’s ingredients.
Running since 2009 globally and 2012 in South Africa, World Class is a lot more than a competition. With additional masterclasses and workshops, the programme has supported, educated and inspired some 250,000 bartenders over the years, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
World Class stretches bartenders to work smarter, aim higher and be as creative as their idols – those talented individuals who have what it takes to win national and global trophies.