The beginning of July saw the best of the best descend upon Bangkok, Thailand, to witness the ultimate test in bartending fitness at the Diageo Reserve World Class Southeast Asian Finals.
Following from the massive success in Singapore last year, 2015 saw Diageo claiming a large space in the recently opened EmQuartier luxury shopping mall – and with this venue came more judges and international gurus, including some familiar faces from last year: Marian Beke, bar manager of Nightjar London; Jeff Bell, general manager of PDT New York; and Hidetsugu Ueno, the famous owner of Bar High Five in Tokyo. Also in attendance were World Class alumni Tim Philips (World Class Bartender of 2012) and Charles Joly (World Class Bartender of 2014), as well as newcomers Igor Hadzismajlovic (co-owner of Employees Only) and Tanqueray Gin Master Angus Winchester.
The 28 bartenders from seven countries – Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and guest city Hong Kong – were put to work right from the get go, with a surprise challenge at the Welcome Dinner the day before the finals began: a cocktail-food pairing, with any dish presented by the Hilton Sukhumvit to be paired with a new cocktail creation made from any spirits from the Diageo Reserve brands on hand. It was a tense hour in which each country’s team banded together and racked their brains for the best flavour combinations to wow the judges – Team Malaysia (made up of the talented Hanafi, Osmund, Shawn and Insan) expertly mixed Tanqueray 10, Cîroc, Cherry Herring, Sweet Vermouth, Thai orange juice, lime juice and muddled ginger. Ultimately it was Team Thailand that won the challenge, with Team Hong Kong coming in a close second. The scores from this challenge went towards the final tally for the Best Bar Team.
No further surprises struck during the official days of the finals, to the great relief of the bartenders, who were intensely focused and brimming with nervous energy. The first day went off like clockwork, and the bartenders introduced themselves through the first two challenges of the regional finals: Occasion (presenting two different cocktails to suit two different occasions, using Johnnie Walker Gold Label) and Five Star Classic (creating two classic cocktails for the supervising judges).
Both challenges ran concurrently, so the elevated stage was constantly surrounded by people and the sound of clinking glasses and ice rattling in the shakers – it was a lively atmosphere that buoyed the judges as they diligently made their way through all 28 competitors. While this was going on, seminars ran simultaneously on the upper floor of EmQuartier, with interesting and thought-provoking workshops on topics like ‘The Renaissance of Vermouth by La Quintinye’, ‘Ritual and Innovation Behind the Bar’ and ‘The Modern Take on Classic Cocktails’ (often presented to a packed audience).
Day One drew to a close and with it came the first elimination. The group of 28 whittled down to 14, and Malaysia was to be represented by Shawn and Osmund for the final round. Despite the fierce competition, the sense of camaraderie was not lost among the bartenders, who whooped and cheered as their teammates progressed to Day Two.
Much like the day before, Day Two was right down to business. It started with The Bloody Mary By Ketel One challenge, in which the bartenders were each tasked with making their own version of the classic cocktail. The crowds filed in for the afternoon’s high stakes Cocktails Against the Clock challenge, in which the bartenders created six to eight cocktails in eight minutes. Shawn pushed himself to make the eight drinks, and finished in a flourish with an extra Johnnie Walker highball, bringing his total to nine and absolutely flooring the judges.
In true Thai style, the finale was a grand event that descended into an epic party with pop-up bars following the announcement of the Individual Challenge Winners (for the four separate challenges), the National World Class Champion from each country, the Southeast Asian Bartender of the Year, the Southeast Asian Cup, and the new Rising Star award. Shawn was given the title of National World Class Champion of Malaysia, as well as the Cocktails Against the Clock challenge winner and the shared winner of the Bartender of the Year award (which he tied with Steve Leong, Champion of Singapore).
This is Shawn’s third time as Champion of Malaysia, having won the title in 2009 and 2011. He credits this success to his persistence and passion to bettering his craft every day. “It never ceases to amaze me how a single spark in 2009 has brought me to where I am,” he said.
The Global Finals loom on the horizon, and the stage is set for South Africa in September. It may well be that the third time will be the charm for this World Class veteran.