In Sydney and Melbourne there exists a bartending elite. They have built small followings of cocktail connoisseurs who follow them from venue to venue for their signature styles. You may not know it, but many of them are united by one association: Diageo’s World Class competition.
Each year, Australian World Class competitors are put through a series of intense workshops and challenges, vying for the chance to represent Australia at the Global Finals. Beyond the personal benefit to the bartender, when they return from competition our city’s drinking culture reaps the rewards.
Matthew Stirling works at Fitzroy’s newly renovated Black Pearl. “In an industry that’s not formalised by any kind of training, you can assume that someone who’s gone through to the World Class Top 25 can do certain things,” he says. “You know they use fresh produce, they can cook … they can use syrups made with different techniques.
“Here at the Black Pearl there’s really no social-media presence,” Stirling continues. “We don’t really do any promotion or advertising or anything like that. At World Class you expose yourself to professionals, distillers and senior parts of the hospitality community – opportunity is the outcome.”
The Toff In Town’s Jonathan Minihan also competed in this year’s Top 25, and has experienced first hand the rise in profile that an association with the competition brings. “If your bar has a good amount of ‘hospo’ following then you get other bartenders coming in. It inevitably helps business,” he says.
“Melbourne has such a huge number of bartenders,” Minihan says. “If you go into a place and you have a bad cocktail, you’re not going back. Especially as a bartender, because that’s what you do. If it’s just someone reading the ingredients off a piece of paper and putting stuff in a glass, you don’t want to pay $20 … or more.”
Double Happiness’ Sacha Leonard, who won the World Class Welcome Drink challenge at this year’s Australian final, agrees there’s no room for mistakes. “Entering this competition is one of the best ways to improve your skills,” says Leonard. “It forces you to look for original and distinctive ways to make and serve drinks.”
Since competing in World Class 2015, Jonathan Liu of Sydney’s Archie Rose is more actively involved with the city’s cocktail scene. “It’s created an idea that I can pursue this skill set. It’s pushed me to be a lot better at what I do.” As the drinking public becomes more aware of what makes a quality drink, this focus on the craft is important for small venues such as Archie Rose.”
Sydney’s Charles Ainsbury was Australia’s 2014 World Class Champion. Formerly of Eau De Vie, Ainsbury paired with 2013 World Class Bartender Of The Year winner Luke Ashton, to open This Must Be The Place in Sydney, assisted by prizemoney from the competition. Beyond their win affirming a place in the industry, it directly contributed to transforming the pair’s career.
“We're staying modest and not celebrating anything just yet,” Ainsbury. And fair enough: it’s only been six months of trade for This Must Be The Place, and Sydney’s bar scene is one of transience. “Venues thrive and collapse around us,” Ainsbury says. “Just because we won a competition doesn't guarantee we're full every night, every day of the year.” And yet their combined prowess is a powerful draw.
Jack Sotti is the most recent beneficiary of the World Class association. Having been crowned Australian Bartender of the Year at the World Class Australia Grand Final in May, Sotti has just returned from competing in the World Class Global Final in Cape Town, South Africa, where he placed third. “In South Africa, I had the opportunity to meet the judges, gurus and winners from previous years,” says Sotti. “Suddenly I’m getting noticed and appreciated by all these industry professionals, people I’ve been looking up to for a decade. It’s a career boost.”
For the competition, Sotti created a levitating cocktail — The Stealth Bomber. “It was the most photographed drink of the competition,” claims Sotti. He says participating in the Global Finals and continuing to develop his drinks will only draw attention to his Melbourne venue, Boilermaker House. “I’m going to keep pushing to raise my profile,” Sotti says. “Building up reputation is a massive benefit of World Class.”
Jenna Hemsworth agrees. Having previously worked alongside Sotti at Eau Da Vie, she now mixes drinks at Lui Bar at Vue de Monde, from the Rialto’s 55th floor. Hemsworth found the biggest benefit of participating in World Class to be exposure.
“It helps get my voice out there,” says Hemsworth. She completed a five-year degree in Biomedical Science at university, but right now she’s more interested in cocktails. “People have this misconception that bartending is a job you get before you get a real job,” she says. “I turned my passion into a career. Opportunities like World Class show the public that this is something worth doing.”