Think MasterChef. Now think of that kind of level of competition but among bartenders, and that’s what the World Class Championship is.
“World Class, globally, is the largest bartending competition in the world. “So basically we find the best bartender here in South Africa, and that bartender then represents South Africa against 64 different countries to compete to be the best bartender in the world,” explains Steven Saunders: senior reserve band ambassador at Diageo South Africa.
Under the title Diageo World Class SA 2017, Saunders and team have been travelling South Africa since the first week of this month, hosting regional legs before the national competition, which will take place in Joburg from April 24 to 26.
“In the past it has always been the chefs in the kitchen who were the big names. Now all around the world bartenders are becoming famous and they travel the world as global celebrities, and World Class looks to do that.”
We asked Saunders what he thought had caused that shift in thinking – from barman to mixologist – where these experts are now respected more for their skills.
“I think some really good bars were opened up overseas where they had been pretty much underground, like the old American-style speakeasy bars.
“They started recreating classic drinks, drinks that go back to the 1800s. And those classic drinks are becoming popular again.
“It goes back to the technique of the bartender, the way he made those classic drinks.
“If you go back to the 1800s, the bartenders then were highly praised; people were enthralled watching them whip up cocktails behind the bar.
“And so when all these speakeasy-type bars opened, it kind of recreated that cocktail culture. People would try to perfect those classics and then do twists on classics and make their own drinks.
“Bartenders have now been put more in the limelight, and nowadays it’s a massive, growing industry. Some people just travel the world as bartenders.”
While South Africa may still need to catch up in some areas, Saunders said that on the skills front, we were among the world’s best.
“I think we probably have some of the most creative bartenders in the world. We finished 15th in the world last year and 12th the year before, so our bartenders are doing us proud.”
He said part of the problem lay with bartending still being viewed as an entry level job.
“In South Africa bartending is traditionally viewed as a job, a way to earn money, while you’re at university. It was never seen as a profession.
Winning World Class on a regional, national or even international level brings with it a host of opportunities.
“A lot of bartenders who compete in World Class move on to become brand ambassadors. For example, I competed for three years, I never won it, but now I run the programme.
“They also get asked to do ‘guest shifts’ around the world For example, Dominic Walsh (one of the competition’s judges) has just got back from Athens and Dubai, working guest shifts at some of the top bars in the world. They get interviewed and videoed and become celebrities... or they could pursue the bartending route further,; run master-classes or consult on menus"
He added that they were serious about developing the country’s mixology talent.
“Part of the competition is the training and development. We select the top 50 venues that we think are world-class venues in the region and we do training in those bars. This year we’re also running the Diageo Bar Academy where we’ll be training 14000 bartenders at our cost, just to try and elevate the level of bartenders in South Africa.
“It’s just a case of learning from the best...so get yourself into one of the top bars in South Africa – even as a bar-back (runner) or a bartender if you are lucky enough, and just grow!"