It's not a profession renowned for its gravitas but a select group of bartenders in Berlin this week were taking drinking very seriously indeed. "I practice between three to five hours a day," Russian bartender Alexander Rodoman said. "I can't count how many bottles I break. But it all goes into my annual budget."
Rodoman, an eight time champion in the art of cocktail mixing in his own country and the 2003 world champion, also owns a company specializing in putting on displays of mixology at private parties in Moscow. And he was in Berlin for the 35th World Cocktail Championships. Around 100 bartenders from 52 countries were competing in the annual contest, organized by the International Bartender's Association. It consists of two sections -- flair and classic. In the classic category, bartenders spend most of their time working with ingredients to make the best tasting cocktail they can. In the flair category, they show off their mixing skills with a routine that could involve anything from juggling bottles and shakers and a precarious balancing of glassware to strange and interesting ways of incorporating fruit or other cocktail garnishes.
The event took place in a hotel ballroom in the heart of Berlin. At the entrance spectators were greeted by a middle-aged French bartender who amazed them with the decorations he had created from fruit and fruit peels.
But Rodoman has seen this before. He excused himself, saying: "I need to concentrate." And so he did. To practice for his heat in the contest, he threw three, four, or sometimes five shakers and bottles into the air, catching them behind his back or between his legs. He kept the lot juggling with the help of his wrist, knee or forehead. Sometimes a bottle even landed, somewhat precariously, on the bridge of his nose.
Acrobatic Performances And Breaking Bottles
And then he demonstrated his piece de resistance, the trick he believed might win him the world championship in the flair category. He put one bottle underneath his knee and bent his leg. On top of his head was a small plastic wheel on top of a bottle -- it had three glasses attached to it. Then while he juggled a variety of bottles, catching some of them in his cocktail shaker, he began to mix the ingredients into the glasses rotating on his head.
While practicing, Rodoman was surrounded by the Swedish delegation to Berlin. All wore light blue jackets with yellow stripes with names, numbers and assignments on the back. One could identify the president, the ex-president, the first lady and even a nurse.
"Amazing," enthused Number 8, ex-president Christer Sjökvist. It was 10:26 in the morning and he was holding his third vodka of the day.
Unfortunately during the competition proper, Rodoman didn't win. He let too many bottles fall during his much-rehearsed five minute routine. Bartenders are supposed to prepare three drinks during an acrobatic performance -- their final score is based two-thirds on the act, and one-third on the taste of the resulting drinks. So Rodoman's year of practice was all for nothing. But during his act, he was surrounded by a cheering, half-drunk audience (an average of 300 a night come to the contest), their admiring eyes on him while their hips shook to dance music.
"I couldn't win anyway," he said afterwards. "You can't win when no one loses."
"The Best Drinks Didn't Make It Into The Finals"
The heats of the classic section were conducted on a stage in 13 rounds. Four barmen performed during each round with the winner of each round advancing to the finals. The system, used for the first time in Berlin, proved controversial.
"Imagine having Malta, the Faroe Islands, Luxembourg and Iceland in a round before the World Cup," complained Turkish bartender, Ugur Dervisoglu, whose drink was called "Berlin's Painkiller." "They're not the best teams but one of them must advance. And then you have a round with England, France, Germany and Brazil. Which means that the best drinks didn't make it into the finals."
Many of the competitors agreed with Dervisoglu -- but of course, they tended to be among the bartenders who didn't advance into the finals.
In the classic section contestants were given six minutes to prepare five similar cocktails. Recipes for the drinks and any decorations -- there are very strict rules for these -- had been submitted to the judging committee three months before the event. Once on stage, contestants were judged on the cleanliness of their work, their methods and whether they had used the right amount of alcohol. Once mixed, four waitresses took the drinks to a room on the second floor. There, 12 judges tasted each drink and, just like the haughtiest wine snobs, assessed it for aroma, appearance and taste.
"We take just small sips from each drink," said Australian judge Ben Davidson, "otherwise we'd all be drunk by noon."
The Champion's Secret Recipe
The eventual winner in the classic category was Vladimir Banak, a Slovakian bartender. His drink, "Sweet Road," was actually quite simple as was his garnish: a mixture of raspberry vodka, cherries in syrup, blackcurrant, cream and cocoa powder. Banak himself looked like a fairly minimalist sort of guy: no tattoos, piercings or earrings.
And in the flair section the winner was Gianluigi Bosco, of Great Britain, who wore an oversized felt hat and juggled vodka and apple juice to a rock'n'roll soundtrack. His fruity concoction, called "Absolutely Rocking," contained mango juice, apple juice, vodka, vanilla and lemon; the garnish was lime, apple and red currant.
On the morning of the finals, Christer Sjökvist from Sweden was drinking vodka again. It was just before 11 a.m. Asked what the secret recipe for the title of world champion might be, he said that the contest was similar to the Olympics or to the Eurovision Song Contest. Only here, he explained, competitors didn't have to rehearse. They just had to do what they did at work every day. Simple, he said, but with a twist of amazing.
And as for that vodka he was holding, his seventh so far? No, he didn't normally drink this early in the morning, he replied. "We just never stopped drinking last night."