Behind the Bar Stick People

Who’s Going to the 2019 Bartender of the Year Finals?

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The finalists impressed the judges with three unique cocktails.

It takes more than a good recipe to be named 2019 Heaven Hill Bartender of the Year. You need to show all the traits of a world-class bartender—from spirits knowledge to the ability to read guests’ needs—just to reach the finals in North Carolina.

But how do you find bartenders who have mastered the technical, artistic and interpersonal aspects of bartending?

After sifting through hundreds of applications, Heaven Hill and invited the top competitors to one of eight regional events. At these regionals, six bartenders had three rounds to prove that they deserved a spot in the 2019 Bartender of the Year finals to compete for the $15,000 cash prize.

The first two rounds tasked the competitors with mixing and presenting the cocktails that earned them a spot at the regional event: a twist on a classic cocktail and an original recipe based on what inspires them.

  • How to Advance to the Bartender of the Year Finals

    “The first cocktail helps me understand if they truly have a grasp of classical bartending,” says Heaven Hill national brands educator Lynn House, who also judged the regionals. “The second allows me to see their creative side.”

    The third round is what gives the judges extra insight into the Bartender of the Year hopefuls. The bartenders get one-on-one time with the judges to collaborate and create a recipe to fit a fictional cocktail menu.

    “It helps me see who they are in the trenches, how they’re able to think on their feet,” says House.

    The winner of each regional event demonstrated the qualities of an amazing host, in addition to those of a talented cocktail maker. Pairing those skills is the mark of a true professional and explains why one of these regional winners will be the next Bartender of the Year.

  • Chicago

    Winner: Katie Renshaw

    Hometown: Chicago

    “This is the only competition I've done where the judges are actually involved during the creation process,” says Renshaw. “I really loved the back and forth aspect, tasting and giving feedback before the final version is presented.”

    The Chicago bartender took advantage of this unique element, working with the judges to figure out exactly what kind of cocktail they wanted in the tricky final round. “They asked for something more challenging for the fictional menu—a bartender’s kind of cocktail,” she says.

    “I took that to mean a delicious balanced cocktail but something with a flavor profile or style not as approachable or familiar to the average guest,” says Renshaw. “I went for a stirred cocktail that isn’t bourbon- or rye-based, since the request was something to suit a cocktail nerd.”

    Since the fictional menu was summer-themed, Renshaw decided to create a fruit-forward take on the Rosita. “I utilized PAMA pomegranate liqueur and muddled raspberries to bring fruit and acid to the drink,” she says. “I used my one brought ingredient, Sauternes (a French sweet wine), in place of vermouth, so the cocktail was fresh and summery.”

    The flavor profile was exactly what the judges wanted, and they were just as impressed by the original thinking that led to the complex cocktail. It’s the kind of approach that’s given Renshaw a shot at becoming the next Bartender of the Year.

  • Los Angeles

    Winner: Vay Su

    Hometown: Los Angeles

    The $15,000 grand prize draws a lot of competitors, but it wasn’t what encouraged Su to throw his hat in the ring. “I entered the competition because I appreciate what Heaven Hill is doing,” he says. “I love whiskey and Rittenhouse, Elijah Craig, all the Parker's. ... I mean, have you ever had a taste of the Parker's Promise of Hope? It's freaking delicious.”

    Su’s passion for Heaven Hill spirits came through in all three rounds of the competition. But it wasn’t just enthusiasm that earned the Los Angeles bartender a trip to the finals. “I treated the judges as I would any guest that would come through my bar,” he says. “First, I asked them about flavors they like or dislike. While this was going on, it was pouring rain in Los Angeles. It made me wish I was somewhere that wasn't raining, maybe on a beach with perfect blue waves, like Hawaii.”

    This gave the Su the idea for a refreshing cocktail with macadamia nuts, but he had to reconsider when he realized one of the judges has a nut allergy. “I had to pivot and rely on one of my secret ingredients, a mandarin cordial I made with a blend of mandarin juice, mandarin zests, kumquat and palm sugar,” he says. “I also added a few drops of malic and tartaric solution for a bit of brightness and a softer mouthfeel.”

    He mixed the cordial with Domaine de Canton liqueur, Lunazul tequila, soda and a little egg white to create a personalized take on the fizz. It was perfectly balanced, since Su had measured the pH level of his cordial to determine that he didn’t need to add any additional acidity to the recipe.

    In the final round alone, he showed flexibility, imagination and precision. It was the exact kind of performance that the Bartender of the Year competition celebrates.

  • New York City

    Winner: Parker Luthman

    Hometown: Providence

    “Heaven Hill Brands has such a remarkable focus on their stories as a family, and that really translated into what the judges were expecting in the semifinals,” says Luthman. “It really gives you an opportunity to dig deep into what drives you as an individual and challenges you to turn whatever that is into a delicious drink.”

    That’s what Luthman did with his round-two cocktail, the Feelings of Home. The delicious cocktail uses sesame oil to represent Luthman’s Korean background and a house-made plantain syrup to stand in for his partner’s Puerto Rican heritage. This shows how personal of an approach he has behind the bar.

    “I initially came to this industry because I was infatuated with creating drinks,” says Luthman. “But I’ve found magic in the opportunity to connect with each person who sits at our bar.

    This philosophy, balancing craft with hospitality, made Luthman uniquely positioned to stand out in the New York City regional. The Providence bartender also showed off his creativity in the final round of the event, in which he was challenged to create a cocktail ideal for sipping on a patio during spring.

    “I obviously thought about tequila. Focusing on the idea of day drinking, I wanted to create an apéritif-style variation of one of my favorite classic cocktails, the Rosita, showcasing both the Lunazul blanco tequila and PAMA pomegranate liqueur.”

    Luthman rounded out the recipe with dry vermouth, Salers gentian liqueur, fino sherry and orange bitters. With a few technical adjustments, as suggested by the judges, he had a cocktail that earned him a trip to the finals.

    But hearing his name called wasn’t the most significant moment for Luthman. “Having the chance to sit together with the Heaven Hill family and the other competitors at dinner was the highlight,” he says. “Being able to talk with other passionate people in this industry is all that matters to me.”

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  • Austin

    Winner: Justin Ware

    Hometown: Houston

    This was the third year Ware entered the Heaven Hill Bartender of the Year competition. It’s the first time he’s advancing to the national finals, and the recent success may be due to a piece of advice from another bartender at Johnny’s Gold Brick, the hip Houston bar where you can find Ware making standout classic and signature cocktails.

    “One of my bartenders said, ‘I love that you do these competitions but hate the bartender you become,’” says Ware. “His point was that I was trying to put on a show instead of being the bartender I am behind the stick every night.”

    Relaxed and ready, Ware made the trip to Austin and impressed the judges with his poise and skill. He separated himself from the other bartenders in the final round, largely because of the house-made syrup he whipped up on the spot.

    The judges can expect just as authentic a performance from Ware at the finals in North Carolina. “My strategy going to the finals is to be me, do what I do best and hope that it's what the judges are looking for,” he says.

  • Denver

    Winner: Keifer Gilbert

    Hometown: Phoenix

    One of the benefits of competing at the Heaven Hill Bartender of the Year regional events, aside from getting one step closer to the $15,000 cash prize, is getting immediate feedback from the acclaimed judges. Phoenix’s Gilbert was smart to take advantage of this resource.

    “One of the judges said my final cocktail had a little bit too much acidity on the finish, with a sort of unpleasant tingle on the back of the tongue and throat,” says Gilbert, summing up the initial response. “So I added just under a quarter of an ounce of simple syrup to the recipe.”

    Subtle tweaks like this were enough to take Gilbert’s recipe to a whole new level. It seems likely that he’ll raise his game once again at the national finals, where he thinks a good performance will help raise the profile of Phoenix’s bar scene, in addition to his own.

    “Phoenix has some amazing bars and some extremely talented people behind them,” says Gilbert. “If I end up pulling off a win, I hope it not only creates more opportunities for me but also opens doors for the other talented folks in my city.”

  • Miami

    Winner: Kabir Akbani

    Hometown: Miami

    Miami’s Akbani made an excellent first impression in the regional finals. House described his first recipe as the best sour cocktail she has ever had. Akbani also showed strong attention to detail and professionalism.

    When asked to create a beachy spring cocktail, Akbani mixed Sacred Bond brandy, Dubonnet Rouge, apple and pineapple juice, pineapple syrup and lemon. The result was well-balanced and easy to drink, but the process of making it was a little too complicated for the fictional menu part.

    “The judges told me to cut down a few steps so it can be easier to make at a high-volume establishment,” says Akbani. He impressed the judges all over again by simplifying the process without sacrificing any flavor. The Miami bar scene, in addition to the judges, has taken notice of his excellent performance.

    “Many beverage professionals have reached out to connect with me on social media,” says Akbani. “I’ve been receiving a lot of compliments at work.” Now that he has earned a place at the finals in North Carolina, he’ll have the perfect chance to raise his profile on a national level.

  • Nashville

    Winner: Kevin King

    Hometown: Savannah

    King traveled from Savannah to Nashville to get one step closer to the title of 2019 Bartender of the Year and $15,000 cash prize. His confidence was immediately obvious to the judges, who soon realized he had the talent to back it up.

    In the first round, King showed the judges how thoughtful he was in an inspired take on the classic Toronto cocktail, the Canadian Tuxedo. “This cocktail is highlighting the spice of Rittenhouse rye and the softer, more rounded notes of Sacred Bond brandy,” he says. “The embered maple is house-made and gives the cocktail body and a whisper of sweetness.” The drink was complex and delicious, but it wasn’t even the best cocktail he made that day.

    “His first two cocktails were strong, but it was in the third round that he delivered a beautiful cocktail that demonstrated his skill set and confidence,” says House.

    When the judges gave him the parameters for the third round, King immediately had a vision for the kind of cocktail he would add to the fictional menu. “I wanted to make something low-ABV, approachable and that could be made quickly,” he says.

    His instincts were on point, but that alone wouldn’t have earned him a trip to North Carolina for the finals. Using his excellent technique, King was able to turn his distinct vision into a delicious cocktail.

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  • San Francisco

    Winner: Alison Kwan

    Hometown: San Francisco

    Kwan had lots of ideas going into the San Francisco regional. She presented two options of her custom recipe and asked the judges which was the better build.

    “The first one was Lunazul blanco, kumquat honey, lemon and Suze,” says Kwan. “The second had the same build but used Yellow Chartreuse instead of Suze. The judges and I agreed that Suze was better, but they also commented that the drink needed length. That inspired me to think of the last ingredient.”

    Kwan eventually decided to use bitter lemon tonic water to bridge the ingredients. It was obviously the right choice, since that well-balanced cocktail is a big reason why Kwan will be representing the Bay Area in North Carolina.

    The finals are still to come, but Kwan has already taken a lot from the Bartender of the Year experience. “I've met some truly amazing people through this competition,” she says. “I believe their influence on my work and career will only make me a better bartender and person.”

    Which of these bartenders will be the 2019 Bartender of the Year? That will be decided this June in Highlands, N.C. Stay tuned to see who takes home the prestigious title and $15,000 cash prize.