OPINION: Ben Davidson
At the recent Australian Bacardi Legacy national final held in Sydney, there were four very talented and passionate bartenders vying for the career enhancing opportunity of taking out one of the big global cocktail competitions in the world today. By the end of the night we would all be exalting the reigning cocktail Queen.
In light of a recent dissenting opinion that was published on a blog post last week by a well known bartender, I want to share my opinion about what actually happened and perhaps why it happened, as a counter-point to what has been suggested that may have happened.
As an invited guest at my first Bacardi Legacy final (I used to work for the enemy), I was keen to watch and take in the presentations of four of the Australia’s top bartenders to see who I thought was going to take it out, without any preconceptions about who would be the winner.
I’m familiar with Jenna Hemsworth as an award-winning bartender with the big smile and the cool blue hair, I’ve met Millie Tang a couple of times and I know she makes a mean Stackquiri and has wicked tatts and is a force to be reckoned with. I’ve heard of David Robinson a few times and he appears to be destined for good things, and I got to see Will Krepop in action for the first time, who impressed me with his Altura cocktail audacity, and I don’t know if he has cool tatts or not.
Having organised and judged many national cocktail competitions over the years, I know that each bartender brings with them a certain amount of form and their profile going into the competition. This is based on who they are as a person, how relatable they are, what they’ve done, their mad skills, self-confidence and ability to deliver under pressure in the white-hot spotlight of the competition stage. The old Japanese proverb is true, that the hardest steel is forged in the hottest fire, and it follows that the more competitions you have entered, the more capable you are of knowing what it takes to deliver a performance that is going to blow away the judges and secure the win. You also start to get to be seen in a different light if you keep popping up in competition finals.
For the brands, cocktail competitions are an important marketing tool that comes under the category of ‘on-premise and bartender engagement’. This form of ‘activation’ is a key pillar of liquor brand marketing, because it generates activity, creates content and provides a call to action to become involved in the opportunity to experience a brand’s hospitality. The modern competition has a lot of hoops to jump through, but the most important task is to judge / choose / select the winning bartender in a public setting, to go up against the top bartenders from around the world.
The thinking goes something like this – by executing a professional and engaging competition format, the brand generates good-will and positivity in the bartending community by supporting and promoting the careers of up and coming and established bartenders alike, by giving them exposure to their peers and the wider world. Up for grabs is an opportunity to travel, make new friends and be treated like a king or queen for a few days. I’ve always felt that the generosity one receives from a brand creates a natural feeling of gratitude and wanting to repay that generosity through support of the brand for years to come. From a brand’s perspective it’s about creating influential advocates to become aligned with a brand based on mutually beneficial outcomes.
Jenna is at the top of her game at the moment and is a determined and confident bartender that has worked hard to get to where she is today. She was always going to be the ‘one to watch’ during the event as the reigning bartender of the year.
At the pointy end of the final decision, we rely on the panel of expert judges to score the finalists and establish who the winning bartender is. As with any competition the decision of the judges is final, should be respected and usually is. This year’s judging panel was the human Bacardi Daiquiri Sam Bygrave, Mr. Saturday night himself, the magnanimous James Irvine and the übermensch extraordinaire Paige Aubort. All of them are Sydney based drinks industry legends, just working their asses off and is also where Jenna is living. But to write an opinion piece that insinuates this regional bias based largely on a ‘gut feeling’ is calling the whole thing into question, and is beyond the pale, really.
I thought all four competitors did an outstanding job in presenting their cocktail in an engaging and professional performance. They all did brilliantly and can be rightfully proud of their efforts, but of the four presentations, Jenna stood out to me as being the best on the night. She excelled in communicating about the drink she created and what it meant to her, not least of which was the fact that she was inspired by other trailblazing women and all delivered in a natural, confident, self-assured style that was a pleasure to watch. On taste, it was like a citrusy herbal and aromatic riff on the Daiquiri and I thought her drink was the best on the night in terms, balance, complexity, acidity and overall flavours and aromas. Millie’s Me Oh My is an exquisite little classic in the making that you could toss back all afternoon! She has started her Legacy too now and it has a life. From what I saw it was probably down to the two of them, however the guys were super polished as well. I’m sure the final scores were close but Jenna stood apart from the others just a tiny bit, by my reckoning. Millie’s time, come it will.
“Drawing on the collective energies of strong women in the industry Jenna presented her drink called The Monarch, a regal cocktail metaphor for self-empowerment and believing that the success of the individual is drawn from a knowing that you have the support of the many. Just like a queen.” ~ DW
The reason why I’m writing all this is that just last week, the mysteriously edgy, cynically aloof, somewhat intriguing and usually cool Brisbane bartender Kal Moore, called this into question in his protracted, pointed and a bit pointless blog post, when he made a veiled attack on the judges impartial integrity, the format of the competition itself and the fact that judging scoresheets are not made public. By suggesting that inherent biases have influenced the result, Kal is having his Kanye moment when he said to his imaginary Jenna, Imma let you finish… but here’s 1500 words to say why you shouldn’t’ve won.
In calling out the possibility of bias in the judging, Kal uses his own personal bias for who he wanted to win as a justification to allege others of having bias for the person who actually won. Nobody benefits from this introspective pretzel logic, it just brings those invested people down with impossible to prove or disprove insinuations, leaving a slightly bitter taste in your mouth like a warm shot of Aperol.
Kal, we get it. You hate NSW! Lol. You can’t bare to think that a cabal of Sydney-siders might have conspired against a beloved Queenslander. LMAO! (Maybe we need a State of Origin cocktail competition! Actually no we don’t.)
I’ve been communicating with Kal and in his opinion he is coming from a place of seeking transparency and minimising the possibility of bias, and the way it was delivered – to cause a disruption and to start conversations is his modus operandi, but it’s misguided and unfair to those that it blindsided.
I have felt compelled to comment on his post, as it has been flapping in the wind and the record needed to be corrected, as well as re-affirming Jenna as a justified and fair winner. We don’t need scrutineers for respected industry judges and calling people out from a distance is not helpful, to put it mildly. They’re just trying to find a fair winner so we can all go home and get on with the next thing. Yes in those sliding door moments, when everything is in the balance opportunities can be won or lost, it all seems so important but all we can do is let the cards fall where they may and deal with it as stoic individuals.
After her win on what must have been an exhausting day, I sat down with Jenna to get some insight into her journey so far and what this means to her. She said, “I’ve heard people in the industry say – she’s so confident, she’s self-assured, she knows what she wants and she’s not a shrinking violet – but that’s not my personality, I’m quite reserved and that’s not me. Since the start of my teen years I’ve been on a massive journey of self-doubt and self-discovery, breaking myself down and building myself back up again. It was not an easy path to get to where I am today. Now that I’m here I’m very blessed to have a Mum who was always ready with a kind word when I needed it or a harsh word when I needed it and it was either pull yourself together, you’ve got this or don’t be so hard on yourself, you’ve got this. If anyone thinks this comes naturally, or the confidence is easy, it’s not, it’s a choice you make every day to do this, but the more you do it and the more you believe in yourself the better you become. I’ve realised that a little bit of self-love goes a long way.” Yasss queen!
I asked her what she hoped to take out of the experience both here at the National final and at the Global final, and in her usual humble way she said, “I didn’t come into Bacardi Legacy thinking that I would win. Honestly, I thought that at most, I’d say what I had to say and feel earnest about the fact that I felt very strongly about what I had to say. I think that if I can do that in the Global final and bring this message with now all of Australia behind me, representing a place of progression, change and acceptance in the industry, I think that I’ll feel that I’ve done really well and feel proud of myself if I’ve projected that same passion, energy and connection to something that I feel very strongly about. That’s my entire aim for this, is to keep going with what I’ve done because I’ve only just started.” Word to the massive.
And on her motivation to keep going on the journey, she said, “Having these strong women behind me, I feel safe, I feel confident, I feel happy and proud that I’ve got all of these amazing people following this course. I can’t go wrong, I can’t fail in my eyes because we are all taking a step in the right direction and it doesn’t matter if its not the winning step because we are better than we were yesterday. If I make a couple of people feel better about themselves it makes me happy, because this journey has made me feel better about myself.” Preach, Queen.
In the meantime, I think we all just need to chillax and bow down to the Queen! Give respect and allow her to enjoy her moment in the spotlight, just like the many who have come before her.
45ml BACARDÍ Carta Blanca
15ml Dom Benedictine
30ml Mandarin juice
Peel of one mandarin
20ml Lime juice
8 Basil leaves
Method: Shake all ingredients hard to properly infuse the peel and release the basil oils. Double strain and garnish with a young basil sprig.