Behind the Bar Stick People

The Search for the 2018 Bartender of the Year Is Complete

The Heaven Hill Bartender of the Year finals aren’t your average cocktail competition. That’s not just because of the $15,000 grand prize and prestigious title that goes to the winning bartender. Everything leading up to the winner announcement, which happened on June 19, makes it a unique and invaluable experience for each finalist.

The 2018 Bartender of the Year finalists enjoy a drink before the winner is announced.

This year, the finals took place on breathtaking and remote Sea Island, Ga. Before the bartenders faced off in the finals, they had a chance to learn and have a great time together. It started with a hands-on workshop with Don Lee, the former beverage director of PDT in New York City, a current partner at soon-to-open Existing Conditions and an all-around cocktail genius.

Don Lee breaks down how to create a balanced cocktail, scientifically.

Lee went into great depth with finalists Arthur Boothe, Mony Bunni, Julien Calella, Austin Carson, Harrison Ginsberg, Madelyn Kay, Adam Robinson and Jorge Vargas-Baquedano, discussing how sugar, acids and ABV affect the balance of a cocktail. The legendary cocktail maker also led a series of exercises to demonstrate how these elements can be manipulated.

You won’t see many other competitions offering an experience like that. It gave finalists valuable insights to bring to their own bar programs, in addition to the final phase of the competition.

But the bartenders wouldn’t spend the entire trip fixing cocktails. When you’re in a place as beautiful as Sea Island, you really have to spend some time outside of the bar. That’s why the finalists and judges shot clay pigeons at the Sea Island Shooting School and spent the afternoon fishing. Heaven Hill national brand educator Lynn House even caught a hammerhead shark.

The finalists and judges enjoy dinner and drinks on Sea Island.

The group of finalists really bonded throughout the day, so when they were given a free night to explore Sea Island on their own, they chose to stick together.

The following day, the competition began with a random drawing. This decided the order in which the finalists would compete, in addition to the whiskey—Elijah Craig or Rittenhouse—and liqueur—Domaine de Canton or PAMA—they would need to feature in their original cocktails.

Once the parameters were set for the competition, the finalists got to explore a pantry and small market set up at the resort, where they could select fresh and seasonal ingredients to round out the cocktails they would make for the second phase of the competition.

But the selection of fresh fruit, herbs, spices and more isn’t all that’s notable about this aspect of the competition. Each finalist had a private consultation with Lee and experts from and Bon Vivants, discussing how to transform and develop these ingredients in surprising and innovative ways.

Bartenders took insights from these talks to the test kitchen, where they could actually create the tinctures, syrups, garnishes and shrubs that would make their recipes one-of-a-kind.

This is one of the only competitions that really gives bartenders the time and resources, as well as some of the best collaborators in the industry, to fully conceptualize and create an original cocktail. It’s the centerpiece of the competition because that vision and ability is exactly what makes someone Bartender of the Year.

The finalists had plenty of fresh ingredients to work with.

But the first phase of the competition had them sipping drinks rather than making them. Lee made a series of off-balance cocktails, challenging the bartenders to identify what was wrong and how to fix it.

This gave them the chance to show off what they had learned in the previous day’s hands-on workshop. The group’s performance made it clear that all the finalists had been paying close attention.

The second phase was the main challenge and ultimately decided who would become the 2018 Bartender of the Year. The finalists used the whiskey and liqueur they drew, along with the ingredients they picked up from the pantry and developed in the test kitchen, to create a cocktail for the bar program at Sea Island Resort.

But the cocktails weren’t judged on taste alone, since this is a competition that tests all aspects of developing a drink and working in a real bar. The judges were looking at everything from technical skill to how the cocktail would appear on a menu. Finalists needed to show personality and give an engaging presentation, while making sure to hit the required pour cost.

Harrison Ginsberg makes his Seed Saver cocktail.

Harrison Ginsberg hit all of those marks and more. And that’s why he was chosen as the 2018 Bartender of the Year. The New York bartender’s Seed Saver cocktail made excellent use of Domaine de Canton and Rittenhouse, brightening the spirits with lemon and pineapple juice.

The new Bartender of the Year also did a great job at summing up the mission of the competition. “It’s equally about the story you tell as it is about the drinks you make,” said Ginsberg. “There’s also a large educational focus in this competition.”

Ginsberg demonstrated what he learned in the test kitchen. He created a genmaicha and apricot syrup that gave his recipe a sense of place and personality. Developing a totally unique ingredient led to a cocktail unlike anything else. Still, even with a syrup made from Japanese brown rice tea and apricot, the recipe is simple and cost-effective enough to be included on the cocktail menu at the resort.

That’s the kind of recipe that earns you the title of 2018 Bartender of the Year and a $15,000 grand prize.

The Seed Saver cocktail earned Ginsberg the title of 2018 Bartender of the Year.

Ginsberg wasn’t the only one to have an unforgettable experience. All the finalists left the island with new knowledge and refined skills and as part of an exclusive group of acclaimed bartenders.

“Getting the opportunity to sit down and talk to the other competitors from all over the country is pretty special,” said Ginsberg. “A competition like this connects our industry and creates a family.”

That family will continue to grow when Heaven Hill starts the search for its 2019 Bartender of the Year. Every bartender reading this should be on the lookout for more details. And anyone hoping to reach the finals of next year’s competition would be wise to follow Ginsberg’s advice: “Never be content and always be open to new ideas, and you will continue to excel.”

An opportunity like this only comes around once a year. You don’t want to miss it.