The charismatic bartending prodigy, Vang Hieu Trung, has been awarded World Class Bartender of the Year for Vietnam at the national finals held on the 9th and 10th of May at Te Bar in the seaside city of Da Nang. An exciting competition marked across 60 countries in over 12 years now, World Class Bartender is an initiative of the world’s leading premium spirits business, Diageo, which owns and distributes iconic brands such as Johnnie Walker whisky, Tanqueray gin, Don Julio tequila, and Ketel One vodka. The competition in Vietnam has been running since 2012 with previous winners realizing that this title is very beneficial to their career prospects as in the case of 2019 winner Dinh Thep who subsequently opened his own bar, Stir Bar on 136 Le Thanh Ton which is now one of Vietnam’s elite bars.
The competition was grueling and demanding in its format but was conducted by all entrants in a friendly spirit of great camaraderie. The journey began in Hanoi on the 15th March when 48 hopeful bartenders gathered for the preliminary rounds before this was whittled down to the top 20 bartenders who would pack their bags and fly to Da Nang consisting of 5 hopefuls flying south from Hanoi and 15 venturing north from Saigon.
The opening ceremony for the finals began on the evening of Sunday 8th May with the fantastic four World Class Champions from 2012, 2016, 2019, and 2021 mixing drinks for one night only in the form of a “Champions Takeover” at Kiseru Smokebar. With the contestants having enjoyed a very convivial and late opening night, this observer was surprised to see how bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the contestants appeared as they boarded an 08:30 “battle bus” to the venue at Te Bar.
A series of four challenges lay in wait as the contestants would be judged by a well balanced and firm but fair panel consisting of food writer and marketer Jovel Chan, MasterChef Peter Cuong Franklin, master of mixology Richard McDonough aka the “Mood Therapist”, hospitality industry icon Tan Pham and whisky expert Nguyen Minh Khanh.
The first day was grueling, intense, and exciting as the contestants navigated the first two challenges being allocated 5 minutes to present their best gin martini using Tanqueray No.TEN and then tackle the Culture Club Challenge using Don Julio Tequila. Almost 12 hours later and with the judges having tasted 40 cocktails, the contestants returned to the hotel under the cover of darkness to rest and replenish their energy for the final push the next day. The final judgment day kicked off with a whisky challenge as contestants were allowed to choose between Talisker or The Singleton single malt whisky as the foundation of their final solo drink offering to the judges.
The results of the individual challenges then produced a final 8 contestants featuring Ms Ngo Kim Uyen from Ne Cocktail Bar, Ms Tran Tu San from The Pi, Mr Vang Hieu Trung from Dot Bar, Mr Nguyen Cong Truyen from Stir Modern Classic Cocktail, Mr Phan Tai Phat from Climb Hidden Cocktail Bar, Mr Nguyen Ngoc Khanh from Tach Spaces, Mr Tran Tuan Anh from M.O.A and last but not least, Mr Phan Thanh Phu from Madam Kew.
The final round that followed was fast and furious. The last 8 contenders paired up and drew from lots a range of random cocktails that they would be required to serve up to the judges and then be pitted against each other in a gladiatorial bartender battle format set as a race against the clock to make their best 5 drinks in only five minutes. This format energized the audience cheering on their favorite bartenders amidst a boisterous and entertaining atmosphere.
A quick break followed as all the contestants changed into glamorous evening attire to discover the final results at the Awards Ceremony and it seemed fitting that Kiseru, which had opened this festival with the Champions Takeover, would close it 48 hours later as the final awards venue. Following a rigorous voting methodology adapted from the Diageo Global team, the results were in and the winners of the four challenges were announced first. Ngo Kim Uyen from Ne Cocktail Bar arrived on stage at the double winning the Tanqueray No.TEN Martini Atelier Challenge and the Singleton & Talisker Dram Dialectics Challenge. The enigmatic Phan Thanh Phu aka Alex picked up the Don Julio Culture Club Challenge Award as Vang Hieu Trung loitered in the audience, unaware of the floodlights that were about to engulf him. Firstly, he was called to the stage to collect his award for winning the Top 8 Showdown contest before responding to the clarion call of defending champion, Ngoc Vu, in announcing to the world that Trung is Vietnam’s Champion for 2022 and will fly to Sydney in September this year to represent his country in the global finals.
MasterChef and competition judge Peter Cuong Franklin reflected on his “great respect and admiration for the Top 20 World Class finalists who are all winners in my book for making it through the intense two-day bartending competition and competing with such a great spirit of camaraderie.” Peter’s favorite cocktail was from Ngô Kim Uyên from Nê Cocktail Bar who cleverly used Talisker whisky to create the Sac Bua cocktail based on a ritual of singing during Tet holidays from Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta.
Richard McDonough was returning for his second stint as a judge and is a highly regarded member of the panel always challenging, cajoling, and championing the contestants throughout the competition. Richard was keen to give credit to “the team from Diageo led by Eve supported by Leo, Chau, and Van, who deserve huge props for putting together such an amazing event that boosts not only the bartenders that competed but the whole industry nationwide.” Asked to pick out one memorable cocktail he declared, “Alex’s cocktail for the Don Julio Culture Club challenge was a revelation” because “the depth of flavor he injected into his 'Bloody Maria' expression was incredible.”
Food writer extraordinaire Jovel Chan added a fresh component to the judging panel and was similarly impressed with both the contestants and the organization of the showcase. Jovel commented “the competition was a real eye-opener and helped me realize how hardworking, hungry, and creative young Vietnamese bartenders are and how important the World Class competition is to them. From the showmanship and costumes to memorizing their scripts word-for-word in English under a stipulated amount of time — it’s so commendable what the top 8 have achieved.”
The final word goes to Vietnamese hospitality icon, Minh Tan, who shared that he felt very much at home at this event in Da Nang, enjoying the beautiful stories behind all of the drinks. Understanding that champagne is the signature of celebration, it was appropriate that Tan’s favorite drink was the Champagne Martinez from Mr Tran Tuan Anh from M.O.A. Of course, this cordial and dapper judge loved the taste, flavor profile, and great balance of the cocktail. He was also impressed with the depth of research that Tuan Anh had conducted not only into the drinks but also into the background and hobbies of the judges. Tuan Anh presented Tan with a small model of a motorcycle in acknowledgment of Tan’s love of motorcycles and the South American movie ‘The Motorcycle Diaries,’ — a heartwarming scene that proved World Class Bartender isn’t just a competition, but an avenue for commitment, human connection and mutual love for the craft of cocktails.