Behind the Bar Stick People

Inside the Mind of Charles Joly, Diageo World Class Winner

All hail, Charles Joly! The beverage director of Chicago’s next-wave bar The Aviary just won the Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year competition in London, a feat akin to winning the Nobel Prize for bartending. He’s also the first American ever to take home the award. Joly knows from bar: He started as a barback at a dance club in the 1990s before working at some of Chicago’s finest craft cocktail bars. We spoke with Joly about his inspiration and making cocktails under world-class pressure. How would you describe your cocktail-making style?

Joly: I don’t have any one style of making cocktails. I think I’m pretty well rounded in terms of knowing my classics, having a very strong base of the fundamentals, working fresh and seasonally and being able to think outside the box. Did you have any sense ahead of time what would be required of you during each challenge?

Joly: About two-thirds of the challenges were predetermined. That being said, I never over-prepare. If you rehearse too much, it becomes mechanical and insincere. There were several challenges that put you on the spot: The farmer’s market challenge, food pairing, written exams and blind tastings all had to be completed à la minute.

Charles Joly’s Above the Clouds cocktail comprises Ron Zacapa Centenaro, Benedictine, Verjus Rouge, Gingerbread Dream Rooibos tea syrup and, for a unique finishing touch, aromatic vapor. What went into the Sensory Challenge and how did you incorporate sight, smell, taste, touch and sound?

Joly: I had a lot of fun with this challenge and took the biggest risk of the entire week with it. At The Aviary, affecting as many of the senses as possible is a conscious effort. You create a memory when you can strike on more than taste or aroma. The guest remembers it. I had a very conceptual approach and had no idea if it would work. We didn’t practice ahead of time- I knew it would be a huge hit or an epic failure.

My presentation was called “Wait 5 Minutes...” in reference to the ever-changing weather in Scotland (and Chicago, as it were). I had a soundtrack made with bright, classical music as I built my cocktail. Two minutes in, everything changed. The music went to heavy, brooding tones, the lights dropped and the judges were given umbrellas. I had assistants creating theatrical storm sounds behind them, flashing lights, thunder and wind in the soundtrack and “rain” coming down on their umbrellas. My cocktail build coincided with the effects: a drink built in a coffee vacuum pot with heavy, aromatic vapor pouring from the top. As the cocktail build concluded, the storm subsided, music and lights brightened and the end cocktail had undergone a metamorphosis. For one of the rounds, you were required to make two different martinis. What was your approach?

Joly: I started with a version of a Vesper. I wanted to avoid the 19th century-style martini, thinking it would be the route most would go. The Vesper is a cocktail that stirs mixed emotions. Combining both vodka and gin, did it foreshadow the move of the modern palate away from the classic gin base to neutral vodka? I actually use it the other way now, as a gateway back to gin.

I had a decoy in the middle of this presentation. I created a Martini spherification as a kind of red herring. For my modern take, I just put up a glass with the Martini spheres and said “There is the future of cocktails gentlemen. Eat up.” The judges got it. The drink showcased real, modern techniques, tasted great and got my point across.

I then pulled up a small press pot and made my actual cocktail. A fresh, seasonal riff on the Vesper using a yuzu cordial made with Ketel One, various vermouth and aperitif herbs, Tanqueray Ten and citrus. For me, the modern cocktail is that—balanced and seasonal. Another event required eight different cocktails for eight judges in eight minutes. Tell us more about that challenge.

Joly: I intentionally made it as difficult as possible, showcasing eight different spirits and as many techniques as possible. You have to go big in a situation like this. Smart, but big.

Although I won this challenge, it is the one I’d like to have back. I think I could have finished a lot more cleanly in less time. I didn’t have the practice I would have liked. How did you arrive at the concept for “Above the Clouds,” your final drink?

Joly: This was another gamble. It is a cocktail I created for the Aviary. I wasn’t sure if the judges would connect with it. The drink is an example of a multi-sensory experience. Strong visual, aroma, tactile, temperature and intense flavor. Would the presentation have enough of an impact though it technically didn’t have a garnish? Would the temperature throw people off? What did you take away from the World Class competition?

Joly: I experienced the kind of self growth you have when you travel alone or are faced with an adverse situation. I’d say it was like a marathon. But I’ve run marathons and this was far more difficult.

Lesley Jacobs Solmonson is co-author with David Solmonson of The 12 Bottle Bar (Workman Publishing, 2014), based on their Saveur-nominated, a site dedicated to making classic cocktails accessible to the home bartender. Her book Gin: A Global History was published in 2012 and she is currently writing Liqueur: A Global History. She is the spirits/wine writer for the LA Weekly and on the editorial staff of Chilled magazine, as well as a member of the advisory board for the Museum of the American Cocktail.