Sometimes, a little cheekiness can go a long way. In bartending, it seems, laying it on thick is what gets you noticed — as demonstrated by Bien Ngoc Vu of Doozy who was crowned World Class Bartender Of The Year 2021 last month in Hanoi. The flair and confidence were on full display too. Compared with flair bartending where juggling liquor bottles earns you bonus points, Vu’s style is more tongue-in-cheek and less reliant on stunts. The strategy paid off; the judges were smitten.
For the Bulleit Elevated Boilermaker challenge that Vu went on to win (alongside taking home the trophies for Tanqueray G&T challenge AND Singleton Three Ingredients challenge; it was that kind of night), he plucked the jury from behind the ritzy bar at Metropole’s Angelina to serve his ‘Be Sober, Fellas!’ whisky and beer concoction at a plastic table.
Nguyen Minh Hoang from The ATM Cocktail Bar & Kitchen in Saigon also drew inspiration from Vietnam’s “nhau” culture but it was Vu’s inventiveness with the ingredients and his ability to distill and communicate the bartender’s handshake concept — a prerequisite of getting the bonus showmanship points for the Bulleit Elevated Boilermaker challenge — that tipped the scales in his favor.
Don’t feel bad if you find Vu’s marriage of whiskey and milk- and dried squid-washed local beer a tad too challenging; “bartender’s handshakes” are those off-the-menu, usually on-the-house shots for the industry insiders that are not meant for civilian consumption.
Go big or go home
Yet it wasn’t smooth showmanship that won you the highest points. To score 35 out of 100 points available, the cocktail’s flavor profile had to be impeccable. Basically, if it didn’t taste good, your finely tuned technique and friendly banter were worth little. Considering that most contestants incorporated bold homemade infusions into their recipes, risks were certainly taken
While the jury of three beverage professionals and two chefs buried their noses in coupette glasses, contestants were putting on show after elaborate show. (Those bonus showmanship points could make or break it, after all.) There were li xi envelopes, oriental fans, a miniature phonograph with a secret compartment, a tribute to Joey Tribbiani from Friends, stories from childhood, stories from before covid, a blindfold act, and a garden-on-a-plate that bloomed and sent smoke clouds across the counter.
Not forgetting the numerous wardrobe changes. In fact, those expecting the old-timey bartender look were quick to discover that kimonos, headbands, butcher aprons and even a pillar-box red ao dai were all fair game.
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Over the past 11 years, World Class has trained over 350,000 bartenders in all corners of the world. Covid threw a spanner in the works, but the show was back on the road by early 2021. Part mixology convention where the latest trends and technology are demoed, part springboard for the up-and-coming talent, World Class is in a league of its own when it comes to bartending championships.
“The pressure on the contestants was really big this year,” sympathized the 2019 winner Thep Dinh who represented Vietnam at the finals in Glasgow two years ago (this year’s world final will be, predictably, digital.) In 2021, the three challenges and the finals were merged into the same two-day event, as opposed to being staggered over several months. And Diageo Reserve, the event partner whose luxury portfolio features such brands as Johnnie Walker Black Label and Ketel One Vodka, made sure Vietnam’s contestants were set up for success.
“Teams on the ground are given plenty of leeway when it comes to selecting bartender challenges from the global catalogue,” explained Diageo Vietnam’s Eve Manne. And local tastes trump global mixology trends. For Vietnam, where whisky rules the roost, gin is making tentative inroads and tequila is an exotic drink, the team chose to focus on Tanqueray No. TEN gin, Bulleit Bourbon and Singleton Single Malt in the finals, all part of Diageo Reserve.
Mixing with the right crowd
Amid all the hubbub of the kick-off event at Angelina Sofitel Legend Metropole, it would have been easy to miss the send-off words of Pham Minh Tan, one of the judges: “And above all, remember to be you.”
As the person credited with bringing World Class to Vietnam back in 2012, Tan has seen (and personally coached) numerous young Vietnamese bartenders rise to the challenge and win international mixology gongs. And it’s not always about winning either. Events like the World Class competition are, first and foremost, about giving these young bar stars an opportunity to learn from one another and push each other to be better.
Female bartenders, although still largely outnumbered by their male counterparts, are becoming more visible too. Angelina’s head bartender Le Bao Ngoc who made it to the final round, is determined to make her mark at the next year’s contest too. Like this year’s champion, Ngoc has personality in spades. Letting it shine more through her craft could well be the winning formula.
World Class Vietnam 2021 Top Twenty:
- Nguyen Minh Hoang – HCM – The ATM Cocktail Bar & Kitchen
- Vang Hieu Trung - HCM – The Loch Bar
- Phan Thanh Nam – HCM – Drinking & Healing
- Le Quoc Thinh – HN – Totem Cocktails & Co.
- Bien Ngoc Vu – HN – Doozy Cocktail Bar
- Duong Tien Duc – HCM – O.D
- Le Bao Ngoc – HN – Angelina Sofitel Legend Metropole
- Tran Minh Quan – HCM – Lanuit Cocktail Bar
- Le Nguyen Phuc – HCM – In the Mood
- Le Thai Tung – Da Nang – Te Mixology
- Ngo Vinh Phuc – HCMC – Firkin
- Nguyen Quang Truong – HCMC – Firkin
- Nguyen Thi Yen Ngan – HCMC – Calmo
- Nguyen Hong Son – Hanoi – Cool Cats
- Nguyen Minh Son – Hanoi – Doozy
- Nguyen Tien Duc – Hanoi – Bee’znees
- Nguyen Van Tu – Da Nang – Kiseru Smokebar
- Phan Thanh Phu – HCMC – Above Rehab
- Nguyen Hoang Lam – HCMC – Qui Lounge
- Pham Nguyen Khanh Hung – HCMC – CTY Kitchen + Bar
World Class Vietnam 2021 Judges:
- Hai Anh Duong – Top 5 Top Chef Vietnam 2019
- Pham Minh Tan – Owner of The Alley Cocktail Bar & Kitchen, The ATM Cocktail Bar & Kitchen, Tre Eatery & Bar, The Liquid House
- Tran Vinh Nam – Co-Founder of Twin CoCo Bar & Room #210, Consultant & Brand Ambassador for Mortlach Single Malt Whisky
- Julien Perraudin – Group Executive Chef of Quince Eatery Saigon, Chef of the Year 2020
- Richard McDonough – The Mood Therapist at Modernist Cocktail Vietnam