The Diageo Reserve World Class competition is the Olympics of bartending, and as with a gold medal, it’s no exaggeration to say that a win at World Class can change lives. But while the awards might transform careers, let’s not forget the ability of the winners to transform our understanding of a well-made cocktail.
The 2015 Australian finals saw winners in five categories, with Melbourne’s Jack Sotti scooping the Bartender of the Year prize for his consistency across all challenges.
While the focus is deservedly on the winner, the five finalists represent the absolute pinnacle of Australian drinking. We’d like to introduce them, and help you decide where to order your next drink.
Thalita Alves, The Gresham, Brisbane
Most World Class competitors are career bartenders with at least five years under their belt. This makes Alves’ win in the Beauty of the Blends category almost unheard of: debutantes generally don’t make the final, and they certainly don’t win a category.
A Brazilian native competing in her first World Class competition, Alves won a category judged by Dave Broom, arguably the world’s foremost whisky expert. Contestants were required to make a Boulevardier, Broom’s favourite cocktail. They were also asked to taste the subtleties of great spirits, then deliver an opinion on them.
Alves proved you can’t teach a palette: you’ve got it or you don’t. A vibrant competitor who kept her cool all the way through the final, Alves’ win was a genuine surprise, to no one more so than herself.
Jenna Hemsworth, Lui Bar, Melbourne
In front of judge Matt Preston and two former World Class winners, Charlie Ainsbury and Luke Ashton, Hemsworth stood out not just for her bright blue hair and bubbly personality. An incredible competitor, the diminutive Melburnian stood tall over all comers in the World Class in a Cocktail challenge. This category is designed to stretch competitors to create a drink embodying everything this illustrious competition stands for. Formerly at Bad Frankie, Hemsworth is now sky high in the Lui Bar, a drinking situation where there’s no need to deviate from the huge menu because each drink is a surprise in itself. We watch with interest where Hemsworth’s creativity will take our drinking culture next.
Sasha Leonard, Double Happiness, Melbourne
Another Melburnian, Leonard won for the Welcome Drink challenge, a round that requires a huge depth of knowledge of the history of cocktails, particularly those made with early-evenings in mind. A cool young kid who’s part of the new guard, if Leonard’s a sign of where the industry’s headed, then the future looks bright. Catch him mixing drinks in the always-fun Double Happiness, up the top end of Melbourne’s CBD.
Rowan Furlong, (The Victoria Room, Sydney)
No question, there was a buzz around Furlong on finals night. Impressing judges across the board with his depth of knowledge and creativity, it was this second element which won him the Veggie Revival category. Judged by chef Darren Robertson of Three Blue Ducks in Bronte, Sydney, and The Farm in Byron Bay, Furlong had to reach deep into his bag of tricks to come up with drinks that used vegetables as core ingredients, and did so in inspiring ways.
With The Victoria Room closing suddenly early this month, Furlong is currently without a bar. We’re looking forward to seeing where he ends up.
Pez Collier, Lychee Lounge, Brisbane
A veteran competitor, Collier has been on the World Class radar a long time. A bartender who understands what the judges want and has a command of all facets of his craft, he won the Against the Clock challenge, where speed, as the name suggests, is of the essence. Incredibly innovative, Collier’s a big bearded chap who’s a smart thinker and will continue to be seen at the pointy end of this competition. As well as heading up the Lychee Lounge, he oversees a group of Brisbane bars, so has a hand in many great menus around the Sunshine State capital.