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Prior to preparing his guava martini with red grapefruit, Shay Koren meticulously cut a guava star topped with caramel made from brown and white sugar. This artistic piece of fruit served as the finishing touch of his yummy long drink, which he prepared as part of the national bartending competition held January 8 at the Whiskey A Go-Go mega bar located at the Tel Aviv port. Koren's creativity and presentation wooed the judges, and he will represent Israel at the international Finlandia bartending competition January 29 in Finland.
The national competition has become an annual tradition since Israel starting competing in Finlandia's international competition four years ago, said Shmulik Wohoberg, brand manager for Ackermann, Israel's largest alcohol importer and competition sponsor. Wohoberg was among the judges in the semi-final rounds, in which he and Ackermann representatives toured bars around Israel for three months to find those who could mix drinks with the most originality and style.
"It was important to go to their home environment, the bar where he or she worked," explained Wohoberg, who also served as the competition's MC.
Twelve bartenders were chosen out of 100 semi-finalists to wow the judges in their preparation of three categories of alcoholic beverages: aperitif, digestif and long drink.
Spirits were naturally high at Whiskey A Go-Go during the informal competition, which had nine judges, made up of alcohol experts, bartending school faculty and culinary journalists, sitting at the bar munching sushi while competitors strutted their bottles. Friends, family and owners of bars represented in the competition stood around the stations to cheer on their favorites and taste the results. Some even brought signs to show support.
"We give scores according to five different criteria: the look of the cocktail, the taste, the aroma, the performance and conduct of the bartender; and a general grade for creativity," explained Ariel Leisgold, beverage manager of Moses restaurant chain and last year's winner. He took home first place in Finlandia's aperitif competition.
The competition flowed speedily with twelve lightening rounds. The bar was divided into three sections for each drink category. All drinks were required to include Finlandia vodka as the base and were limited to six ingredients. Many of the contestants brought ingredients from home, like marzipan d cor, exotic fruits, and sorbet.
Gadi Avekases, director of Bartender bartending school, however, said that the contest environment wasn't conducive to judging elements which are crucial to a successful bartender: "You have to feel comfortable with the bartender. He or she has to know how to serve, when to talk to the customers and when to be quiet - to create chemistry."
Hardly any of the bartenders demonstrated the skill of, say, Tom Cruise in the film Cocktail, in which he fancily juggled bottles and glasses. In fact, many of the bartenders, whose hands were shaking from nerves, spilled drinks on the counter while pouring. This was no beauty contest, either, even though it helps for a bartender to have good looks to lure in bargoers. The bartenders weren't particularly beautiful or charismatic, nor did they dress to impress. Many competed in casual day clothes.
The tall and dark Koren, a bartender at Moses restaurant in Herzliya, however, demonstrated superiority in both preparation and taste. He experimented with various ingredients until he came up with the winning cocktails, including a martini mango made with ground mango, vanilla, and lime and a digestif made with vanilla sauce, vodka and coffee liquor.
However, could the judgment of the judges have been impaired after sipping twelve cocktails each? "We don't drink too much, just taste," said Avekases. "I'd love to get a drink but this is not the time."
Mira Eitan, editor of Wine and Gourmet, justified the choice of the winner: "He was the most creative, his ingredients were interesting, and his work ability was good, his presentation was interesting. He was abovethe others."
A law student at the Academic College in Rishon Lezion, Koren has been working as a bartender for five years. And while he seems to have a bartending career ahead of him, bartending remains for him a serious hobby.
"Today in Israel working as a bartender is like working as a waiter," he said. "Maybe it will develop in a few years and bartenders can make it a profession. It's possible that when I finish studies I'll consider the field of bartending and restaurants."
What is an aperitif, digestif and long drink?
For those who don't like or know how to drink, Mira Eitan, editor of Wine and Gourmet and the only female judge at the competition, explains the difference between the three kinds of drinks judged at the competition.
"An aperitif is a drink you sip before eating. Aperitifs are characterized by several elements. They have low alcohol content so you don't get drunk before eating. They are not too sweet since sweetness makes you feel full. They are usually served cold to whet the appetite."
Classic aperitifs include: rum, campari, martini, cinzano; cocktails include manhattan and cosmopolitan.
"A digestif is drunk after the meal to aid digestion (hence its name), and comes in two types: functional, which helps us digest because it is made up of herbs; and classic, like cognac and whiskey, with a high alcohol percentage to relax after the meal."
Popular digestifs include: cognac, jagermeister, fernet branca, grand marnier and drambuie; cocktails include rusty nail and white Russian.
"A long drink is one that you drink in any context, like at a bar. It combines alcohol with non-alcoholic ingredients so that they can be drunk at any time, often not in the context of a meal, without being too strong or heavy."