“Shake the dice, and let me take you down the rabbit hole,” he says, offering me the dice with a cheeky grin.
We’re at the Beefeater 24 Global Bartender Competition Grand Final, and ‘he’ is Gregory Ian Sanderson, the Australian finalist competing in this cocktail-making event. Before me is an Alice in Wonderland-themed display of gin, perfume bottles, exotic-looking ingredients, a melting clock and a backgammon board that would make any Lewis Carroll fan proud.
Taking centre stage, however, is the reason I’m here tonight: several shot glasses are filled with the cocktail concoction that won Sanderson, from Eau-de-Vie bar in Melbourne, a place at the finals here in London.
I roll the dice, and it comes up a five. “Grapefruit,” Sanderson declares, grabbing one of six perfume bottles on display and spritzing my drink. As it turns out, each perfume bottle is filled with a different botanical. There are six in all – lemon, orange, grapefruit, Angelico, coriander seed and liquorice root – so that each person gets a different cocktail, depending on your luck.
I take a sip. It’s a deliciously smoky blend of grapefruit and tea, slightly bitter but oh-so-drinkable. Sanderson calls it “the 24/7 cocktail, because it can be enjoyed at any time of day” – but be warned, it packs a punch. Only those with hardcore stamina could drink this in the afternoon, otherwise you may find your night ending rather early.
This is the cocktail that named Sanderson champion in the Australian heat of the Beefeater 24 Global Bartender Competition. Tonight he’s been flown to London to compete against 13 other cocktail connoisseurs from around the world, although as the only Australian contestant, Sanderson has officially travelled the furthest to be here.
I’m witness to the final heat of the competition. Earlier in the day, the contestants were tested on their ability to match their drink with food, styling their drink, and their understanding of flavours. Their skills were judged by some of the best in the industry, including Desmond Payne, the creator and Master Distiller of Beefeater 24.
In the creation of their final cocktails, competitors had to follow only two rules: the cocktail must contain 35 ml of Beefeater 24 Gin, and must use at least one tea to impart flavour or aroma. Other than that, they could pretty much go wild.
The competition took place at Shoreditch Studios in East London. I was handed a chart on arrival to make notes on each drink, to help in the voting at the end of the night. At the top of my chart – the beginning of the night – my handwriting is clear and concise, with helpful notes such as refreshing or smoky flavour, or gin-sake combination.
A little later in the evening I’ve written thoughtful statements such as ‘yummy’ and by the time I get to the last cocktails of the evening, I have what is known as a ‘smiley face measurement chart’. Normal smiley-face means ‘good’, while smiley-face-with-dimples means ‘extra-good’.
Just to make a point that the night was in celebration of gin cocktails, I was handed a fishbowl-sized glass of gin and tonic as I walked in. No complaints here – I used it as a pallet cleanser between drinks.
The drinks on offer ranged from sweet to sour, from deliciously drinkable to so strong it made your eyes water. Each cocktail was themed, so that along with a friendly world-class bartender on hand to make your drink, you got a glimpse into the thinking behind it and the ingredients used.
The Italian finalist had an incredible, if somewhat bizarre, Moroccan theme going on, and poured our drinks from a traditional teapot. The French finalist had cheekily named hers the ‘This So British’, although best name of the night goes to ‘Mr Odong’s Fixer Upper’. Coincidentally, this one is also crowned strongest drink of the night.
One drink tasted exactly like a Gobstopper, which quite frankly I could have drunk all night, while another was best drunk while alternating nibbles of chilli chocolate. The level of theatre and showmanship of the entire night was simply spectacular.
Sadly, Sanderson was not crowned the winner of the evening, with the title going instead to UK finalist Nathan O’Neill. It was fierce competition, and lets face it, a free trip to London is a non too shabby consolation prize.
How did we celebrate the end of the competition? With more cocktails, of course. I’ll be eagerly awaiting my invite to get my (debatable) judging skills on this time next year.
How to recreate Gregory’s 24/7 cocktail
60ml Beefeater 24,
10ml St Germain Elderflower Liqueur,
4 drops Fee Brothers Grapefruit Bitters,
40ml of Gregory’s own blended tea, a combination of Oolong Berry Tea and Russian Caravan Tea (guess you’ll just have to visit Eau-de-Vie in Melbourne to get the real thing).
How to make it
Stir the ingredients together over ice, then pour.
What to serve it in
Teacups, of course. With a teapot. Preferably mismatched and a little bit vintage. This is the true Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, after all.
What to serve it with
Duck, pink grapefruit, and a dehydrated slice of lemon.
A touch of madness.