The mission: take cocktails made by ten top Beijing bartenders on the spot, grade them on creativity, taste, aroma, appearance and so on, and determine which entrant goes to New Zealand for the finals of 42 Below’s Cocktail World Cup.
It sounded both fun and serious, and an excellent way to escape the office on time, so I gratefully accepted an offer to be one of three judges at the Beijing qualifier on July 25. The event promotes (duh) 42 Below – each drink included at least one of its vodkas – and gave entrants from Aria, Centro, China Doll, Lush, Q Bar and the Regent a chance to show their stuff.
Frankly, while I tended to make dumb remarks when the emcee thrust a microphone at me – “it’s a kiwi cocktail – without the kiwi”, “it’s perfect for Valentine’s Day – sweet and will get your date drunk”, “it’s a meal in a glass”, etc – I took the contest seriously, especially given the prize. And there was significant disagreement among the judges over the winner (see below).
Some thoughts on the contest:
1. My favorite drink was “42 Below” by China Doll’s Alan Wu – vodka, Cointreau, Campari, orange and cranberry juices, with a thin wedge of citrus across the top that provides some zing as you sip this well-balanced cocktail. It’s subtle in taste, simple in appearance and good as an after-work drink or something to sip all night with friends. I also liked the Tutti Frutti by The Regent’s Reggie (a light drink with a traditional look- “all we need is sand!”) and the fragrant Mint Mojito by Lush’s Dong Ye (“it’s lush, minty and icy”).
2. Surprisingly, while considered by many to be the city’s top bartenders, Q Bar’s George Zhou and Echo Sun didn’t rank in anyone’s top three. Frankly, their drinks were middle of the road and I wondered why they didn’t go with a variation of their original cocktails, such as the GE. Why!?
3. The event was on the roof of Aria. The organizers laid down sod, set up a bar (fronted by enormous blocks of ice), added some goal posts (for the World Cup feel), and had enough space for 100 observers. Original, for sure, and with a good view of the skyline.
4. The 42 Below guys and their marketing company did a good job of briefing us. Seven Dai, one of the judges, provided an excellent crash course on cocktail judging basics.
5. The winner was Johnson Ren of Aria. His entry consisted of a syrup-y mango drink topped by a long rectangular piece of jelly on a skewer with half a strawberry. It’s the one I called “a meal in a glass.” The other two judges argued it was “international” and unique. My view was that the drink’s taste was average, it’s advantage was the garnish and appearance (which were supposed to count for a minor part of the score) and I doubt we would ever order this in a bar (hey, I’m a consumer). Plus, in hindsight, bartenders submitted their recipes ahead of time and this was the only one substituted during the contest. Anyway, nothing against Johnson – he’s a professional, speaks English, seems a decent guy, that jelly does seem unique, and he did convince two out of three of us that he deserved to wine, so I’m sure he’ll do well in New Zealand – it’s just that the contest was the Cocktail World Cup, not Cocktail GARNISH World Cup.
By the way, by contest’s end, I was incredibly… sober! We were so busy watching the bartenders and grading drinks, we only had time for a few sips of each.
Notes: Of the ten bartenders, I know two very well (George Zhou and Echo Sun of Q Bar, previously Midnight, First Cafe) and have met one on several occasions (Bruce Li of Aria, previously Centro). I have not judged a cocktail contest before, nor consider myself a cocktail expert. The other judges were Seven Dai from 3 on the Bund in Shanghai (last year’s winner) and Noel Qi from ASC Fine Wines. The Friday after the contest, I went to China Doll and had another of Alan’s 42 Belows. Finally, I find it difficult to not refer to 42 Below as rock band Level 42.