A funny thing happened over the last few weeks on Facebook. Many bartenders changed their profile photo to a common image: that of a debonair-looking man, with piercing eyes, a beard and tattooed arms. His name is Charles Joly and, in the bartending community, he is the current hero at large. This is because he just walked away with the biggest award there is in the bartending world, the Diageo World Class Bartending Competition.

Diageo World Class is held each year in a new city. There are numerous challenges, some sensory —  combining elements of all the senses in a cocktail — and some spontaneous, like the market-fresh cocktail competition. And some were utterly unexpected, like making martinis in St. Pancras Station after a train trip from Scotland to London. Regardless of the assignment, the pressure is high and the pace is maddeningly intense. If this sounds like the Olympics, it kind of is. The Olympics of Cocktail Competitions, at any rate.

Recently we asked Charles Joly about the competition and its various challenges. 


An Event at the St. Pancras Train Station; Credit: Diageo World Class

An Event at the St. Pancras Train Station; Credit: Diageo World Class

Squid Ink: What ingredients and tools did you bring with you to the competition?

Charles Joly: My experience has told me to bring everything. Regardless of what you expect to be there, bring it anyway. There is too much to keep organized in a competition setting to have to worry about where to track down a tool, spirit etc. If you can have all of your mis en place ready to go, you can focus on the task at hand.

SI: Bartenders from around the world competed in Diageo World Class. What do you feel gave you a leg up on the competition?

CJ: I've worked in nearly every type of venue you can imagine over the years. My diverse experience definitely lent a hand in the competition. At some point, I've faced all of the challenges presented in a work setting.

Handling the logistics and behind-the-scenes were as much a part of the competition as performing on stage. We were constantly moving, changing hotels, packing and unpacking. Being organized played a major role in success. Working in the service industry, you're constantly challenged with adverse conditions and have to think on your feet. It's a reason I love the business so much. No two days are the same.

Making the Cocktail for the Market Challenge; Credit: Diageo World Class

Making the Cocktail for the Market Challenge; Credit: Diageo World Class

SI: Since you often tend to think about cocktails seasonally, what were some of the challenges or surprises you faced in the market/gastronomy challenge, which required market sourcing and vodka as a spirit base?

CJ: Naturally, being in a strange market with a time limit posed some issue. You had to buy everything you needed, including citrus for the cocktails. If you forgot something, you were screwed when it came time to prep. Luckily the spice shop opened just in time for us to bombard him and pick up some clutch ingredients. I scored smoked salt, curry and pink peppercorn at the last moment.

The vodka is a blank canvas to build on. No problem at all using it as the base. For the Bloody Mary riff, I went to a new version of something I've been doing for years. My original cocktail was called The Midnight Mary, a tomato water drink I created back at the Drawing Room with Benedictine, aquavit and herbs. In the challenge, I infused the vodka with curry and took a similar approach. A lighter style Bloody that can be enjoyed anytime of day. 

SI: One of the categories required that you create a drink inspired by your literary hero. Who did you choose and why? 

CJ: I went with Tennessee Williams. I wanted to avoid the painfully obvious, although I know that Grant [Sceney] from Canada killed it with Hemingway.  I was just in New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail and was able to visit a couple of the homes Williams lived in.

I also came across a cookbook collaboration made by a renowned NOLA chef and foremost historian on Tennessee Williams. They used all of his food and beverage references in his writing to create this new cookbook — I found some inspiration there.

I ended up doing a riff on a Ramos Gin Fizz, a favorite of his and spinning off on a Vieux Carré cocktail. I had a lot of fun with this challenge and added some twists last minute. I would argue it was my most smooth, natural (and silly) performance of the competition.

Joly Winning the Trophy; Credit: Diageo World Class

Joly Winning the Trophy; Credit: Diageo World Class

SI: Tell us about the final challenge. 

CJ: We definitely went big in the final. When I heard there was a punch for the final, I immediately called my friend Paul McGee at Three Dots and a Dash. They have an amazing signature drink served  in custom-made treasure chests. I lugged that damn thing around for a week and it paid off.

My bar was completely transformed into a tiki experience — totally over the top. We didn't know it was going to be outside — the beautiful weather and setting all ended up being perfect. I created a common thread between my two cocktails. Both rum-based, both with a powerful aromatic component but showcasing two ends of the spectrum. One modern and conceptual, the other lighthearted and fun.

SI: What's the tone among the bartenders who are competing? Did you help each other or did people tend to stick to themselves?

CJ: This is the bar industry; we are notoriously supportive of one another. Naturally, if you put 50 personalities in a room, there will be all types. Overall, it was incredibly helpful. We lent tools to one another, made extra juice or syrup for each other and even tasted peoples upcoming drinks if they asked as they made last minute adjustments.

Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book Gin: A Global History. Her book The 12 Bottle Bar, co-written with David Solmonson, was released on July 29. Email her at ljsolmonson@gmail.com. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.

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