Thursday 11th May was a wonderful warm evening. Spring is here and walk along the entrance path to Fort Cumberland is such a beautiful one.
Having launched the UKs first 3-year aged rum, you could say that Portsmouth Distillery are working a little ahead of the curve. The distillery certainly likes to try new things, and they have been hosting a number of comedy evenings and that night, they hosted the inaugural first Southern Bartender Competition.
Sometimes worlds collide and it was a real treat to trot along to the distillery wearing my judge’s hat, but also my Strong Island one. It was an honour to have been asked to judge the competition and I didn’t know what to expect, I’ll tell you something though, it blossomed into something quite spectacular.
I was on a panel with International Spirits Writer and local legend David T Smith, the wonderful Julia Nourney who travels the world consulting for distilleries, and the distillery’s own distiller and artisan Vince Noyce.
It’s the first time the team have run the competition and I doubt it will be the last. The response from local bartenders was enthusiastic, with 23 signed up, and 20 making it on the day from local bars, as well as further afield in Guildford, Chichester and Winchester.
Each entrant made two drinks, a twist on a Daiquiri and a creation. Judges scored on each separately. The drinks were made live on stage, with music playing, the distillery’s own Dich presenting and the bartenders talking us through their recipes as they made them. Some were simple and classic, others just had fun with it, and some had gone to painstaking effort, with homemade ingredients, and well thought out recipes inspired by the distillery, the team that run it, the local area, and anything else you can imagine.
Tickets had been sold for a local crowd to watch with drinks, and the energy was palpable as they looked on along with the entrants support teams, cheering and rushing up to take photos. There was a lovely element of camaraderie, and everyone was having a lot of fun.
Two notable entries came from The Briny. The first, from Robbie, was an incredible Pine Daquiri with spiced sorbet on the side. It was a nicely thought and out executed drink, the spicy yet cold sorbet bringing all the flavour, before being washed down with a beautifully balanced, sweet and smooth cocktail which had an incredible texture. Robbie was the second up and Jay the last, completely owning a set of clear platform stilettos that I could only dream of wearing, and presenting an exquisite ‘Pink To Make The Boys Wink’ Lychee Daiquiri, with divine lush lychee and floral garnish.
I have to mention Cameron of The Botanical in Port Solent for his Underwater Daiquiri, a bright blue connection, beautifully presented in a glass jar with wooden top and bottom, filled with plastic plants, gummy fish and shells. A little light in the top plinth shone down through smoke to create an aquarium of a drink. It was fantastic presentation, fun and full of theatre.
Another crowd pleaser was Tom of Broken and Repaired, formally of Corner 53 Distillery and soon to be opening a bar in the Osbourne Road area. Tom’s twist was delicious, with home made falernum and blow torched pineapple.
Zac from Rapscallions had clearly put in a huge amount of thought and effort with his Sophie Daiquiri (named after the Portsmouth Distillery Still). The recipe was fantastic and had all the bells and whistles of home made bitters, with gentian lavender and rose, with a seaweed coaster and spray of Jim Beam, a nod to the Jim Beam barrels that age the distillery’s rum.
And Rapscallions took the winning trophy with a wonderful effort from Naz, who totally owned the ribbing of turning up with a saucepan and made a Chai live on stage, infusing bay, clove, cardamon and cinnamon, and cooling with Cinnabar rum and a touch of banana juice to heighten the taste. The drink was served in a tea pot which a touch a dry ice magic to give the illusion of steaming. The cocktail was poured into teacup of ice, with some ginger cake on the side. It was a treasure of a drink and showed creativity and story, as well as taste. It was a real beauty, and a real testament to Naz as she confessed on winning that she’d only pulled it together a couple of nights before.
I would have loved to write about all the drinks, they were fantastic, and every entrant should be really proud of themselves as they all brought something to the table. But hey, it’s my job to cherry pick. What I will say is that the community of bartenders here are fabulous and the response to that first event was wonderfully positive. Having travelled with drinks and been lucky enough to experience the supreme level that bartenders set, it was great to see that we have so much of this good stuff going on right here on our doorstep.
And David T Smith felt the same. “I am absolutely delighted by the quality and the innovation from the competitors. And it made me re-realise how lucky we are and how many great bards are in Portsmouth and the surrounding area.
What set the winners apart, other than their delicious drinks and presentation, was that they allowed their personality to come through and engaged with the judges, because after all, being a great bartender isn’t just about making delicious drinks, it’s about having the personality and the rapport with your audience.”
Well done to Portsmouth Distillery for putting on such a great event. Bartenders work hard, and sometimes the great gift of drinks that they bring gets missed. It’s a real art form. I love that these guys are being celebrated and allowed to shine like the stars they are.
Here’s to next year, but for now? Just get out to the bars, say hello and ask these geniuses to whip you up a cocktail.
Keen on cocktails? Check out David T Smiths latest release, Martini, a showcase of 30 different recipes, put together with gin hero Keli Rivers.
Have you been to Portsmouth Distillery yet? If not why not? They host all sorts of sessions and evenings and are a real treasure right here on our doorstep. Go on now.