Just last month, Singapore played host to the greatly anticipated Diageo Reserve World Class South East Asia Finals & Bar Show. Over two days, 26 competitors from six different countries in the region battled it out to send the best country representative to the World Class Global Finals in London this July.
This inaugural event began in 2009 in London, where 18 countries participated to be the first to claim the title of best in the world. The competition has since grown to include a global representation, which eventually led to the establishment of the South East Asian World Class. In the past, Singapore and Malaysia would have to share the title to represent at the Global Finals, but this year it’s every man (and woman) for himself – six countries in the region participated with four bartenders in the SEA Finals, including Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia (who had six bartenders in attendance). By the end of the two days, each country will have one bartender going to London.
This year was Singapore’s first time hosting the South East Asian World Class Finals, a massive affair that transformed an old warehouse just off Clarke Quay into a bustling speakeasy pop up space.
Six judges oversaw the different challenges, including bar manager Marian Beke of London’s Nightjar and the owner of Tokyo’s Bar High Five Hidetsugu Ueno, as well as former competitor Jeff Bell, Ketel One Distillery Ambassador Dennis Tamse, Drinks World Asia Editor in Chief Marc Rodrigues, and Asia Pacific Director of Diageo Bar Academy Lam Chi Mun.
Danny in his prepared mode
Day one’s challenge kicked off at the crack of dawn, where all bartenders descended upon Chinatown to gather ingredients for the Ketel One Market Challenge. The Malaysian team took out all the stops and wowed the judges with their creativity and inventiveness, especially Shirmy’s Nyonya cuisine-inspired cocktail.
Jeffri in the Kings of Flavour Whisky Challenge
Following this was the Kings of Flavour Whisky Challenge, which required an innovative cocktail to include the Johnnie Walker Blue Label, like Jeffri’s concoction that included the Blue Label with mandarin bitters, served in a chilled glass sitting on a bed of dry ice. By the end of day one, 12 bartenders (two from each country) would progress to the next round through the judge’s scoring. This honour went to Shirmy and Yinying, who not only represented Malaysia, but also flew the flag for female bartenders of Asia as the only two women to go to the second heat.
Shirmy grinned her way through the Speed Challenge
On day two the competition became fierce with the Cocktails Against the Clock speed challenge, where all bartenders would make six cocktails in eight minutes (that’s one cocktail in 80 seconds). Shirmy grinned her way through and entertained the judges with her explanations, while Yinying became silent in concentration. Lastly, the Batch and Serve Signature Cocktail Challenge, which entailed all competitors to mix together their own signature drink utilising any alcohol from the Diageo Reserve portfolio.
Yin Ying in full concentration
The gruelling competition came to a close all too soon with the awards for the Individual Challenge Winners (for the four separate challenges), the National World Class Champion from each country, the South East Asian Bartender of the Year, and the South East Asian Cup. The awards were neatly divvied up between Singapore and Thailand (Singapore claiming the first ever winner for the Bartender of the Year as well as the South East Asian Cup), but Yinying’s skills shone through as she was selected as the National World Class Champion for Malaysia.
“I was shocked when my name was announced as the winner for the Malaysian team,” she says. “Personally, being in this competition in Malaysia itself has already taken me a huge step away from my comfort zone. I never thought I would make it this far. Going to Singapore was really a great challenge for me, what more to say about London.”
As someone who is still new to the industry, yet managed to wow the judges of such a prestigious competition, Yinying’s win at the South East Asian World Class Finals speaks volumes about the rising standards of the home grown bar and cocktail scene.