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Extreme competition: strap yourself in for the craziest cocktail competition on the planet.

Ever hang out the side of a helicopter while shaking a cocktail? Of course not. How about bungee jumping into an icy river in the middle of winter while making a Cosmopolitan? Are you kidding? Or perhaps you've screamed your way through a tight gorge onboard the Shotover jetboat while trying to keep a cocktail in its glass.

Well, for 42 bartenders from all corners of the globe, that is exactly what happened in September, when they were flown to the extreme sports capital of the world, Queenstown, New Zealand, also the home of one of the most highly awarded vodkas ever, 42 Below, to participate in the 42 Below Cocktail World Cup.

Now in its third year--I've judged each competition--the event is the biggest budget cocktail gathering on the planet, and is also the only competition where contestants are put into teams of three. This year bartender teams representing Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, England, China, Spain, France, Japan, Central America, the United States and Thailand participated.

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To be selected, bartenders worldwide submitted original cocktails using 42 Below Vodka or the brand's flavored varieties, such as Passionfruit, Feijoa, Kiwifruit and Manuka Honey, or the company's South Gin. Regional judges selected three winners to form the team from each region.

The most amazing part of the week, besides the incredible camaraderie, was the meeting of these brilliant mixologists and the global ideas and ingredients they brought with them. I've been lucky to judge dozens of cocktail competitions around the world and I've never seen such an amazing standard of cocktail technique and totally off the wall ingredients. As with any great cocktail, however, the finished drink must be well balanced, and these certainly were.

Fellow judge Peter Dorelli, a true legend in the global bartending community, having worked the stick at the famed American Bar in the Savoy Hotel in London for 40 years, agrees that there was a rich pool of talent and groundbreaking drinks on show.

"This is what it's all about. The levels of creativity I witnessed on the competition day and during the rest of this week here in Queenstown was incredible. I can retire happy now that the future of bartending is in great hands."

ANYTHING BUT UPTIGHT

The competition itself was held outdoors on a purpose-built ice bar with the postcard backdrop of the The Remarkables' ski fields and Lake Wakatipu. "We wanted to hold a competition with a difference, something that captures the New Zealand spirit and energy," says "chief vodka bloke" and founder of 42 Below, Geoff Ross. "So we decided to be as extreme as possible and hold the competition outdoors, unlike most other competitions that arc boring affairs held in hotel lobbies."

As two-time winners, the Australian teams came in with high expectations. That region is certainly producing some mind-blowing cocktails at the moment, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. Jason Williams, from Melbourne's landmark Ginger Bar, is using all sorts of crazy ingredients, from squid ink and crushed prosciutto to Campari dust.

Overall, ingredients ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, with local ingredients featured heavily--42 Below, Central Otago wines and Kiwi botanicals--as well as unusual additions such as tobacco and oak smoke syrup, toasted pinecones and the Dubai team's "Viagra salsa."

Eccentric methods dazzled the judges, from USA East using ladies' pantyhose as a strainer to yam sculptures from Central America to the Europe team's juggling of flaming vodka bottles. Also, molecular mixology with lemongrass, the rosemary "caviar" used by North East Asia and red hot pokers by the Brits.

Indeed, the poker-wielding London team (consisting of Kevin Armstrong of London's Match Bar, Jose Da Rocha from Eclipse in London and Tim Fitzgibbon representing Raoul's in Oxford) took the event. Their drink was an adaptation of a Posset, a medicinal drink made by monks during the Middle Ages. It was warmed by placing a scalding hot poker into the drink. The team stirred their ingredients--42 Below Manuka Honey Vodka, Benedictine, Tahitian rum, honey, egg yolks and dark ale--over a heated cauldron before finishing it with the smoking hot pokers.

It was an ambitious combination that on paper sounds disgusting but the finished drink came out like runny custard, topped with fresh nutmeg and served in beautiful tea cups; on a chilly winter's day it was the perfect foil for us judges. Certainly one of the most intriguing drinks I've ever tried and the first time I've ever given a perfect score in any competition.

A local team came in second with a superb drink that called on several area ingredients, while in third place was the USA East Coast team of Greg Seider (Standard Hotel, Miami), Gerry Graham (Smith and Wollensky, Miami) and Randolph Karagdag (Olives, Las Vegas) who created a unique Oyster Mary Martini, containing a fresh Bluff oyster, tomato and garlic flower water strained through pantyhose, limoncello and tomato sorbet and a basil, celeriac and Togarashi chili pepper-infused 42 Below Vodka.

"This year marks the 200th anniversary of the cocktail and the culture has never been more vibrant," notes Ross. "Mixologists all over the world are pushing new boundaries while recognizing the importance of the classics. Yet again, our 42 contestants have left us utterly amazed by the standards they've achieved."

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I'll "Cheers" to that ...

Naren Young travels the globe as a cocktail consultant, writer, teacher and competition judge, and has tended bar at several top operations in the U.K., U.S. and Australia, including Australia's Cocktail Bar of the Year 2005. He now resides in New York City.

RELATED ARTICLE: FRIAR BRIAR'S SACK POSSET

Created by the London Team and inspired by a medicinal drink made by ancient monks, this drink took the top prize at the 42 Below Cocktail Competition.
2 egg yolks
1 heaped teaspoon of honey
2 1/2 oz. cream
2 1/2 oz. 42 Below Manuka Honey Vodka
3 oz. Speights Old Dark Ale
1/2 oz. Tahitian dark rum
2 tsp. Benedictine Dash Angostura Bitters


Whisk all ingredients and warm on a stove, then char with a red hot poker. Serve in a teacup.
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Title Annotation:SCENE
Author:Young, Naren
Publication:Cheers
Date:Nov 1, 2006
Words:1021
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