We can all be artists.
Some of us know it, some of us show it. Regardless, the key is owning it.
I was recently invited to go to the U.K. with Bombay Sapphire Gin to witness the 10th anniversary of their Most Imaginative Bartender competition. I had the opportunity to see the most talented bartenders in the world put their art on display.
And they blew me away.
As the Founder of Notable, I’ve been collaborating directly with brands for nearly a decade. I understand promotions, marketing decisions, events, you name it – this is my wheelhouse. But as much as I want to express in this article how gifted the 10 finalists were, I wouldn’t be telling you the full story without also discussing Bombay Sapphire. Not just because of the experience they put together, but because of the creativity in every step of their product.
To fully immerse you in this journey, I’m going to do my best to articulate the experience from start to finish…
Touchdown at London’s Heathrow Airport. Next stop: the mesmerizing Bombay Sapphire Distillery, the Laverstoke Mill, about 90 minutes away.
Oakley Hall is an absolutely stunning hotel that sits on a seemingly never-ending plot of land composed of grassy fields and willow trees. Here, I met several of the finalists, ambassadors, and Bombay staff for the first time. Over the next few days, these strangers would quickly become friends.
The bartenders came from all over the United States and Canada, each with their own dynamic personalities and outstanding cocktails.
But they also came to win.
We kicked things off with a visit to the Bombay Sapphire Distillery. The company is well-known for its innovative approach to all aspects of gin making, from their iconic blue bottle to their unique vapour infusion distillation process. The distillery itself is both state-of-the-art and an icon of a previous era; Bombay Sapphire recently moved to this location, taking over and restoring what was once a 250-year-old paper mill.
(Pro tip: Bombay Sapphire just launched Star of Bombay, the world’s first gin meant for sipping, which is available now in Canada).
I rode to the Bombay Sapphire Distillery beside Chantelle Gabino, the Canadian finalist who I was looking forward to meeting since seeing her in action throughout the build-up of the competition.
The tour offered a full sensory experience and clearly illustrated how carefully crafted this product is.
I loved it, and after posting an Instagram photo, I had several friends who were travelling throughout Europe ask me if this should be added to their itinerary. The answer was an unequivocal ‘yes’.
Various bars around the Bombay Sapphire Distillery popped up as the sun set and our first libations were served. I went for a martini (I prefer the 50/50) as the crew connected and conversations started rolling.
We were then lead to two long tables in the middle of the distillery with seating for about 40. Delicious family-style food, a live performance by a three-piece band consisting of an unbelievable sax player, electric violinist, and DJ – and of course Bombay cocktails – combined to create a sophisticated sensory experience.
As the evening wound down, the nerves shot up.
The judges explained how the Most Imaginative Bartender Finals would go down, how the three challenges would work, and how winning this internationally-recognized accolade would impact a bartender’s career forever.
The bartenders then met their “mentors” – experienced, successful, sought-after hospitality professionals from all over the world who would be their coaches throughout the experience.
The pressure was on, and excitement was building; the Most Imaginative Bartender competition was about to begin.
Day 2 x Challenge 1
If anyone reading this hasn’t stayed at a Mondrian yet or wined and dined at one of their properties, take a moment and familiarize yourself.
We arrived just in time for the Pantry Challenge. What we didn’t know was that celebrity chef Jamie Oliver would show up as the event’s surprise host.
It was a high-pressure race against time – bartenders had 90 seconds to select their ingredients from an overflowing pantry. From there, they would rush behind the bar to create their work of art: three cocktails to be tasted by the judging panel.
Canadian Chantelle Gabino rocked the house with her cocktail, presentation, and genuine smile, captivating Jamie and the judges.
But ultimately, it was Alex Chien from Columbus, Ohio, who took the winning prize with a cocktail that paid homage to his Taiwanese background. A combination of Bombay Sapphire Gin, Lemon Juice, Thyme, Apricot, Chickpea Brine, Dry Vermouth, White Miso Syrup, Dry Curacao, and Celery Bitters, the Beitou Thyme left the judges ready to start the night right then and there.
We ate, drank, and shared stories all to a DJ selection of old school hip-hop hits.
To cap off the night, we brought our inner jazz artist out at Oriole Bar, an underground speakeasy-style space that was recently voted Best New International Bar at Tales of the Cocktail.
A night well lived for a bunch of artists, to say the least.
Day 3 x Challenge 2
This next experience really took things all the way up.
The second challenge saw the bartenders take over five of the most premier cocktail bars throughout London: Hawksmoor, Happiness Forgets, Callooh Callay, Cocktail Trading Company, and Peg + Patriot, many of them on the short list for World’s Best Cocktail Bar at Tales of the Cocktail.
A cocktail, of course, is only as good as its ingredients. The bartenders were set in the spirit department since Bombay Sapphire mixes brilliantly with anything. However, each competitor spent several hours the previous day visiting the best markets in the city, sourcing the best ingredients, to ensure that every component was as spectacular as the gin.
My colleague and I took on the arduous task of visiting each of the five locations to see these creationists in action and sample their concoctions. The plethora of cocktails was wide-ranging in their style, from modern to classic, stiff to sweet.
As the evening wound down and the group came together for festive drinks, it was announced that Schuyler Hunton, a down-to-earth bartending genius from Boston, was the winner of the second challenge.
His cocktail, Breakfast in Bombay, consisted of Bombay Sapphire Gin, Compound Grapefruit Earl Grey Oleo Saccharum, Lemon Juice, and Egg White Garnish with a spritz of Adam Elmegirab Teapot Bitters. A cocktail like I’ve never seen or knew existed.
Night cap at Dandelyan Mondrian. G’night.
Day 4 x Challenge 3
Waking up on Day Four felt different. I knew it was the final day of this unforgettable experience, but it wasn’t just that – everyone on this journey could feel the anticipation of the final challenge that afternoon, followed shortly by the crowning of the Most Imaginative Bartender.
Later on, we all gathered on the top floor of the Mondrian London for the third and final challenge.
The closing act was a behind-the-scenes look at the winners’ cocktails as presented to the judges. Each bartender had the option to compete with their original, regional-winning cocktail recipe – the same recipe that got them this far – or to create something entirely new for the finale inspired by the experiences of the week.
Everyone was ready for action and determined to impress. Although every cocktail I had seen up until this point was memorable, I was blown away by the cocktails coming out of this challenge.
And so were the judges.
The judges deliberated, suspense filled the air, and finally the winner was announced…
Brenda Terry, a mixology mastermind and amazingly warm young woman from Tampa, Florida took home the third challenge.
Her cocktail, The Philosopher’s Stone, – which Brenda told me is “a statement for how the modern bartender is not truly a mixologist, but more of a modern-day alchemist, searching for the philosopher’s stone each night behind the bar; the eternal, universal elixir for life” – was created with Bombay Sapphire Gin, Sage Infused Rouge Vermouth, Boiled Blackberry Manischewitz Wine with Cinnamon, Nutmeg and Black Peppercorn, Luxardo Maraschino, Rose Water and Peychaud’s Tincture, Grapefruit Peel and House-made Fennel Spray.
After a short break, things were elevated to the 10th degree. After all, this was the 10th anniversary of the Most Imaginative Bartender competition.
Imagine this: with an aerial view of London, The Rumpus Room was now the site of the most exclusive party in the U.K. The party flowed with music provided by one of the most sought-after DJs in the country, DJ Jonny Bizzle, while a curated guest list of 200 celebrities, VIPs, media, models, local socialites and artists created the perfect crowd for the closing party.
Esteemed window muralist Rowena Martinich transformed the exterior windows of the venue as they slowly evolved from panes of glass into an extraordinary masterpiece inspired by intrinsic elements of Bombay Sapphire and the live cocktail artistry happening within the space.
Guests had a chance to sample each of the 10 competing cocktails and vote for the People’s Choice before the overall competition winner would be revealed.
This is how you throw a party.
Now, you’re probably wondering who was named the Most Imaginative Bartender. I can honestly tell you they all deserve that accolade because they all defied convention in seeing their glass as a blank canvas.
However, it was Schuyler Hunton from Boston’s Tiger Mama who took home the People’s Choice Award and Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender Award; a true artist and a passionate bartender blessed with creativity and charisma.
A bartending competition by title only, this event was truly an adventure. Humble ingredients were turned into sensory feasts with such skill and precision, it can only be described with one word: artistry.
When it comes to creating an unforgettable experience, one thing is sure: Bombay Sapphire has set the bar.