42 BELOW COCKTAIL WORLD CUP
DAY ONE – Monday September 3rd, 2012
‘Fergburger saved my life!’ That statement probably is a bumper sticker here in Queenstown. Or perhaps a fridge magnet. Or just a part of everyday vernacular. I also suspect that I’m not the first person to mutter these words into my lamb burger at four in the morning, its fatty juices running down my chin, onto my shirt. Whatever. These monstrous buns of deliciousness are – in the eyes of many – a national treasure. For a town with a seemingly endless selection of bars, and where drinking is essentially a national past time, this legendary burger joint will rival any you’ve been to anywhere. Yes, even in America. Even vegetarians will be satiated.
The Jewel of the South Island, Queenstown is not only one of the most picturesque places on the planet but a place that I’m told where the world’s air purity is measured against. Whether or not this is true (who cares?), it’s something I continue to tell people anyway. Queenstown’s invigoratingly clean air though, for the record, will smack you in the face with its wet breeze coming off the chilly surface of Lake Wakatipu. It will certainly help clear away any hangover faster than any amount of hot coffee and cold showers ever will. And during this particular week, any respite from the endless hangovers will be welcomed by many, this scribe included.
Queenstown is also home to the annual 42 Below Cocktail World Cup, the world’s most extreme drink slinging competition that brings 42 of the greatest, ahem, mixologists to the place where it all began. Well, the brand itself actually began in Auckland under the entrepreneurship and genius of Geoff Ross and it no longer boasts 42 bartenders, budget be damned. 42 Below is now owned by Bacardi, so make up your own mind about where it calls home now, although it must be said that the brand still has a huge following in the motherland.
After a typically bumpy landing with a view over snow capped peaks that never gets old, a rowdy convoy of bartenders, writers, bloggers, Bacardi staff and whoever was lucky enough to scam their way onto this trip (um, me), we touch down for what is always a trip immersed in madness and excess. In fact this is my sixth Cocktail World Cup and with the exception of Jacob Briars – aka the ‘vodka professor’ – and a couple of other long serving 42 Below staff, I might be up there as someone lucky enough to have attended this event more than anyone else. It’s not as rowdy as it once was (and that’s probably a good thing, seeing that I have indeed ended up in hospital and the cop shop on a previous visit).
To say that this is the best and certainly most memorable cocktail competition I’ve ever been to (I’ve been to a lot) would be a gross understatement. How many competitions will throw you off a bridge, out of a plane, take you on helicopter rides and perhaps push you off a mountain in one day, all the while fuelling you with a river of vodka and as many of those aforementioned burgers as you can possibly keep down?
You might have trouble keeping anything down after the first activity. Day one sees us taken directly from the airport to the highest bungee jump in New Zealand (and the third highest in the world), a 134 metre drop where anyone silly enough to jump into this beautiful ravine (no one has ever died on a bungee jump here, by the way) will come up from a knee shaking shuffle out to the ledge, muttering their last rites, to a place where all you want to do is strap yourself in and do it all over again.
Someone in a kilt jumped off sans underwear (he was Scottish, clearly), while U.S brand ambassador Borys Saciuk wore a unicorn mask (that’s him, pictured here). Weird? Certainly. But then again, the official motto of the week was ‘Let’s Get Weird’. It certainly started off that way and with Borys at the helm, it was only going to get weirder with each passing day.
Steve Schneider from New York’s Employees Only, along with his comrades Beckaly Franks from Portland’s Clyde Common and Ken Kodys from Breckenridge Brewery in Denver, however, brought their energy, enthusiasm and patriotism, while the Italians and Scottish teams already made their presence felt with their infectious energy.
That night, as has been tradition every year, we are given a ‘traditional’ Maori welcome called a Wero, where a male member of the local tribe offers a peace offering in the form of an indigenous plant, laid on the ground for the visitor to take. When there were actual tribal wars in the past, the rejection of this gesture would have led to each side performing their own war dance, known as the ‘haka’, followed by fierce hand to hand combat to the death. Of course we accept. We’re given vodka. Sweet.
That night, back in Queenstown (with my dear friends and competition judges Marco Faraone – the only Italian not to live with his mother – and John ‘Is-There-A-Cocktail-Competition-I-Haven’t-Won?’ Lermayer), we hit up Bunker, and in the, um, safe hands of Mr. Briars, we trawl our way through Bar Up (always a favorite amongst the bartenders during this trip of years past), although it was far too early for us to visit this house of ill repute.
With a now well-known predilection and international reputation for blue drinks, Jacob orders a round of ‘Tonic Blooms’, a bizarre sounding depth charge made with gin (or 42 Below) and blue Curacao, immersed in a glass of tonic water. Weird? Of course, but you know about that by now. My bed by now is calling my name and a stop to Fergburger needed to be in my immediate future. And well, you also now know the rest of that story too . . .
DAY TWO – Tuesday September 4th, 2012
Next up in our itinerary of extremities is a helicopter ride, typically taken to the top of The Remarkables but weather sees us dropped on top of another mountain, everyone yawning sarcastically at the mind-blowing view. One of the many aspects that make this competition so unique is the fact that it is a team event, as opposed to all others where bartenders compete individually. During the week, each team is put through a series of challenges that can contribute to their aggregate score going into the grand finale in Auckland on Friday.
The Ready Steady Shake challenge was the first, its format taken from a popular and cheesy English cooking game show, where people are given a mystery box of ingredients and have to prepare a dish, or in this case, a cocktail, on the fly. Each box contained a slew of weird and wacky ingredients that might have included mango jelly, raspberry powder, sauvignon blanc syrup or ice cream, among a myriad of other strange ingredients.
Team Australia offered up an ice cream float of sorts using New Zealand’s internally famous hokey pokey ice cream. The Americans made a bottled cocktail – perhaps as a homage to Jeffrey Morgenthaler, the jovial bar manager at Clyde Common and the current poster boy for this growing trend. The Italians crowned their drink with crispy bacon – perhaps not knowing (or caring) – about the fact that Jacob is a vegetarian. Marco ate it.
Team USA took out the top honors with a stern focus that already had a lot of people tagging them as a favorite. Second place was taken by New Zealand, a trio of vertically challenged, yet very determined and well-prepared chaps who concocted something bizarre from feijoa vodka, apple/raspberry soda, honey/ginger concentrate and a local soft drink called L&P. Twas delicious!
That afternoon, after another terrifying ride up a shaky gondola to the top of Bob’s Peak overlooking the town and lake, John Lermayer and Jacob Briars presented a seminar on winning cocktail competitions, or at least how not to suck while you’re trying to do so. It was an informative presentation that hopefully helped ease some of the nerves of the competitors while perhaps preparing them a little better for Friday night’s final. If not, they at least gave us free drinks. Again. On a side note, did you know that Burma is the only country in the world (besides the United States) that still uses the Imperial system? I didn’t. Jacob did. Go figure.
That night, we headed into nearby Arrowtown for the 21st Century Punch Challenge where each team had to create their own signature punch using, well, anything really. But no more than a bottle of 42 Below, please. Boo! Each team brought their A-game to this event, each drink unique, each presentation polished and entertaining. Australia kicked off proceedings, explaining their drink with images on an ipad, resulting in a clear, clarified milk punch, served in cute little Perspex milk cartons.
Italy presented their drink in an old vintage leather bag, the addition of dry ice adding an ethereal effect, while their drink was probably the best I tried on the night: 42 Below Manuka honey, amaretto, Bacardi 8, lemon juice and chai tea. England made a hot punch that looked eerily like a cup of Hot English Breakfast tea, served with scones and a series of condiments that carried a flavor of each of the flavored 42 Below expressions. Very tight.
New Zealand created a riff on their classic national dessert Pavlova with a passionfruit and elderflower foam, while the U.S team had the crowd enthralled and entertained with their hilarious military-themed routine. Their punch – spiked with Becherovka (which makes everything taste better IMHO), served in a massive ice block and finished with Krug champagne that was sabred by Steve Schneider in what has become one of his recent signature moves.
Despite Scotland following this up with another killer presentation, Team USA proved impossible to beat, again. With two cocktail challenges now under their belt, they were indeed shaping up as the team to beat. Famous local DJ, Downtown Brown turned the party into a frenzy, the place spiraling into complete madness as every bartender rushed the bar to make drinks for a relentless and thirsty crowd. Get me to bed. Actually first get me to Fergburger . . .
DAY THREE – Wednesday September 5th, 2012
I’ve discovered the greatest cure for a hangover. Forget all that nonsense about not drinking in the first place. Where’s the fun in that? You can even dismiss my infatuation with Fergburger for a minute. Jump on the world famous Shotover Jet, a New Zealand invention that was created in 1970. In the past, competitors have been tasked with making a cocktail inside the jet as it hurtles down the tiny rock-laden gorges of the Shotover River at break neck speeds, culminating in a series of 360 degree spins that usually see glasses and shakers (and sunglasses and hats) fly out of the boat. I suspect Bacardi’s legal team retired this event.
From a morning after that started with a very sad looking bunch of individuals, broken from a hard night on the town, turned into a pumped-up and seemingly bullet proof army of warriors ready for another round of, well, anything. And vodka. The Shotover Jet is always one of the highlights of the week. The media and judges are then taken on another helicopter ride – this one particularly scary – to the top of a snow-covered peak and left to frolic in the snow. Amazing!
The other big event for the day was the ‘mystery round’, with no one knowing what was to happen. We’re taken to a barn where we’re given a tutorial on distilling hydrosols using various indigenous aromatic herbs, flowers and berries. Each team then had to create their own 42 Below vodka Martini (with vermouth) and then adding their own essential oils and hydrosols that had been created by Jill Mulvaney of Alembics New Zealand, a company based on Waiheke Island. Some of these included manuka berries, kawa kawa (a native shrub), tarata (a New Zealand citrus), clary sage and then more traditional and familiar aromatics such as peppermint, lime and cardamom. Team Australia finally took down a challenge with their martini that was rinsed with lemon verbena, mandarin and green cardamom.
That night we head into town to celebrate something or other, although it’s becoming pretty clear that the competitors are getting down to business; bunkered down in their villas to practice and perfect their presentations and drinks for the final. That doesn’t stop a few of us riding the town’s only mechanical bull and watching some local flair bartender being a little too ambitious with his fire breathing, resulting in him actually catching on fire. I shouldn’t have laughed. I did anyway.
DAY FOUR – Thursday September 6th, 2012
Today might be the tamest day I’ve ever witnessed in the history of the competition. Drinking buddies are getting harder and harder to find with each passing hour. For the first time in the competition’s history, the final would be held in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city. We bid a sad farewell to Queenstown, although most of the locals were probably happy to see the backs of us. From Auckland airport we head straight to a beautiful seaside function centre to hear the wisdom of Tony Conigliaro – an industry legend and genius (and another judge) – divulging many of his ideas and recent experiments to a captivated and inquisitive audience. He spoke about his new book, as well as distilling terroir, flavor DNA, how he develops the concepts for his bar and much, much more. Fascinating stuff.
A pretty sleepy day in Auckland, with the competitors now on self-imposed lockdown. A few of us check out Auckland’s growing nightlife and find some very cool spots such as 1885, Suite, Golden Dawn, Corner Store and Mea Culpa, all doing great drinks as well as SPQR still doing wonderful food after 20 years in business. I’m drunk and home by 11pm. Major party foul. I promise a better performance tomorrow.
DAY FIVE – Friday September 7th, 2012
Game day. The competitors are almost invisible, save for a few quiet, focused nods of acknowledgement while brushing shoulders in the hotel lobby. Come sundown, we’re all bussed out to The Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT), to a disused aircraft hangar. The set up is out of this world, the 42 Below cocktails are flowing, there’s a palpable anticipation in the air, it’s what we’ve all come here for.
Before I know it, Team Great Britain kick off proceedings in the quirky and entertaining way for which they’ve become known during the week. They make a delicious drink with 42 Below Feijoa, poppy liqueur, lemon juice and spiced dry cider. It’s served in medicine bottles on a bed of hay and dry ice. They hide their nervous energy well behind all their antics and it brings them in at third place eventually.
Perhaps most unlucky not to get on the podium and get a place was the hilarious routine put on by the Startenders team, made up of three previous competitors: James Goodman from London, Michael Callahan based out of Singapore and Daniele Dalla Pola from Bologna in Italy. Taking Frankenstein as their inspiration (the theme of the week was, after all, ‘Lab Experiment’), they had the crowd in stitches and their drink, which consisted of 42 Below Pure, Chartreuse syrup, absinthe, lime and egg white, was delicious, although a touch sweet, which might have affected their final score.
Team New Zealand had been solid performers all week and went into the final with a supportive and vocal local crowd and a quiet determination that they had something special up their sleeves. Indeed they did. They really went for it and in their allotted seven minute time frame, they attempted to pull off a dizzying array of techniques, preparations and ingredients that are far too long to list here.
As they had all week, Team USA was all business and came into tonight the smokin’ hot favorites and they delivered with a perfectly choreographed routine that paid homage to one of the greatest ‘lab experiments’ in American marvel comics: The Incredible Hulk. Steve Schneider played the role of Bruce Banner, concocting a potion that will save the world.
Beckaly played his determined assistant and as his rage started to build, he ducked down under the stage only for Ken Kodys to reveal himself as rage-filled Hulk. The crowd went crazy. The whole performance was thoughtful, well timed, entertaining and most importantly they did indeed have the best drink of the night, the ‘Formula 42’, which combined the 42 Below pure, passionfruit shrub, jalapeno-infused green Chartreuse, lime juice, black pepper-infused egg white and finished with a cucumber ‘air’.
A fitting end to another inspiring week, filled with new friends, new ideas and new stories, many of which can probably never be repeated here. Thanks to all at 42 Below, especially Belinda Henley, Sharon Lillien-Zwiebel, Frances Young, Justin McKenzie, Jacob Briars, Borys Saciuk, Richard Smith and the wonderful people of Queenstown and Auckland for putting up with our nonsense, once again. See you next year . . . perhaps.