The biggest news from the Heaven Hill 2019 Bartender of the Year finals is that Houston’s Justin Ware earned the prestigious title and $15,000 grand prize. But that was just one of many special moments that made the finals an unforgettable experience for all eight finalists.
During a few days at scenic and tranquil Half-Mile Farm in Highlands, N.C., the finalists presented a variety of cocktails to the judges and demonstrated the many aspects of a world-class bartender. That still left them with plenty of time to go canoeing and play bocce ball, discuss spirits with a couple of master distillers and forge all sorts of industry connections and lifelong friendships.
“The beauty of this competition is the way it helps people connect,” says Harrison Ginsberg, the 2018 Bartender of the Year and a judge of this year’s competition. “Heaven Hill has done a great job at bringing mentors and bartenders together.”
Even if only one person could be named the 2019 Bartender of the Year, all eight finalists were welcomed into the Heaven Hill family.
The group started bonding during the ride from the airport to Half-Mile Farm. The bus pulled into a truck stop where the finalists were split into teams of two and given $10 to gather ingredients for an impromptu cocktail challenge. The bartenders were soon racing from aisle to aisle, bouncing ideas off one another about which of the packaged food and drinks would work best in an original cocktail.
After arriving at Half-Mile Farm, the finalists used the items they picked up to create an original cocktail served in a Solo cup. The challenge wasn’t an official part of the competition, but the teams all managed to showcase the truck stop staples—Corn Nuts, ice cream, SPAM, candy and more—in quirky, delicious ways. Keifer Gilbert and Katie Renshaw were named the winners. It was a fun way for the whole group to get to know one another and show off their creativity.
A cocktail hour and poolside dinner were also waiting for the finalists when they arrived at Half-Mile Farm. It was set up outside so the bartenders could fully take in the private and beautiful location.
“At first I was wondering why the finals were being hosted at such a remote place. But as soon as we pulled up to the farm, I got it,” says Ware. “The focus was really on celebrating us as bartenders.”
One of the reasons Heaven Hill Bartender of the Year is such a prestigious competition is the quality of judges. In addition to reigning Bartender of the Year Harrison Ginsberg, the judges included Jeffrey Morgenthaler (bar manager of Clyde Common and Pépé Le Moko), Joaquín Simó (partner at Alchemy Consulting and owner/bartender at Pouring Ribbons) and Lynn House (national brand educator for Heaven Hill Brands). These cocktail luminaries were happy to get to know all the finalists on the first night of the trip.
“This competition isn’t just about tasty drinks. It’s about creating a bond and an experience that will last a lifetime,” says House. “It goes back to the theme of family.”
“Heaven Hill is a real genuine family,” says San Francisco’s Alison Kwan. “Their team is an incredible group of wonderful and hard-working people. I’m honored to now be part of that family.”
The finalists developed a three-drink menu before they arrived in North Carolina. The third recipe, however, needed to feature one ingredient developed on site, so the finalists dug through the seasonal produce to find the right items to elevate their signature cocktail. Creating one-of-a-kind ingredients—house-made syrups, tinctures, shrubs and more—is an important quality of a world-class bartender. Requiring that skill, along with the ability to make a full and cohesive menu, is what makes Bartender of the Year such a comprehensive competition.
“There was enough time for prep, R&D, relaxation and various local activities,” says C. Parker Luthman of Providence. “Having time allotted for all of it allowed us to interact with each other and really feel like we were in the finals together. Heaven Hill prides themselves on making others feel like part of their family, and they did just that in the finals this year.”
Why have the finals at such a scenic location if you can’t enjoy all it has to offer? That’s the thinking that went into spending the rest of the day participating in activities on the farm. There was a relaxed picnic lunch by the lake, and the finalists could enjoy everything from fishing, canoeing, lawn games and simply lounging by the pool.
The judges weren’t the only spirit experts the finalists got to meet. Dr. Seth DeBolt, the director of the Distillation, Wine and Brewing Undergraduate Certificate Program at the University of Kentucky, led a discussion with two master distillers: Heaven Hill Distillery’s Conor O’Driscoll and Lunazul’s Francisco Quijano. The lively talk covered a variety of topics, including sustainable distilling.
After spending so much time getting to know one another and taking in the serene surroundings, it was time for the main event. The challenge for the finalists was to create a menu of three cocktails for a new bar concept. The three recipes should all fit the theme and style of the bar and not exceed 20% of the pour cost for a $10 to $14 price range.
“We continue to hone the challenges every year to make this a more comprehensive test of a bartender’s skill,” says Morgenthaler. This format presents creative, practical and big-picture challenges for the finalists.
The finalists had to present a simple serve in the first round. It could only include three ingredients, including the garnish. For instance, Los Angeles’ Vay Su served an inspired and upscale take on a Boilermaker. Instead of a beer, Su paired a shot of Elijah Craig whiskey with a house-made mocktail.
“It's almost a deconstructed cocktail,” says Su. “It highlights how certain spirits pair with a chaser. Also, it’s a way to sell a delicious mocktail that isn’t just made on a whim.”
The second round tasked the finalists with creating a cocktail that could be easily replicated. That means that the recipe couldn’t include obscure or house-made ingredients. Many of the bartenders used this as an opportunity to make subtle twists on classic recipes.
This is when the bartenders unleashed their full creativity, along with custom ingredient they developed the previous day. It was also when they could really tie together their theme and bar concept.
Luthman, in particular, impressed the judges with his moving and heartfelt performance. He spoke about his experience as an adopted Korean American and how he learned about his heritage through food and drinks. His bar program was his way of sharing that with everyone else. The inspiring story, coupled with delicious drinks, made him the runner-up in the competition.
“Parker has such a strong sense of who he is as a person, student in our industry, teacher and leader,” says Ginsberg.
“I entered this competition in hopes of winning,” says Luthman. “But I have left with such a sense of identity, pride and determination for the future, so I feel like a winner regardless.”
Another essential quality of a great bartender is the ability to improvise. So shouldn’t that be an element of the Bartender of the Year finals? That’s why the judges added an unexpected fourth round in which they asked bartenders to create a specific classic cocktail.
Every finalist was assigned a different recipe, and they all rose to the challenge. It just solidified the judges’ high opinion of the group. “Quite frankly, the entire field stood out,” says House.
Morgenthaler agrees with her opinion. “This was the most talented group we've had in the four years we've been doing this.”
As strong as the group was, no one could really argue with Ware being named the winner. All three of his cocktails—four, if you include the delicious Sidecar he made in the surprise round—were perfect in both taste and concept.
“I built the cocktails around themes, about what I want my community to see from me,” says Ware. The first theme was diversity. “Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the country. There’s so much diversity in flavor and culture and food and drink.” He brought in diverse flavors by pairing a house-made soda from Houston with Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur.
The second cocktail was all about education. “It’s something I’m really passionate about. Not just showing employees how to make drinks but teaching guests about their palates and introducing them to new spirit categories.” His cocktail, What Do I Desire, demonstrates how well Sacred Bond brandy and PAMA pomegranate liqueur go together.
The third drink was tied to the idea of community, particularly the Latinx presence in Houston. He made a clarified milk syrup, with a flavor profile similar to horchata, and mixed it with Lunazul reposado tequila and mole bitters.
“Justin’s love for his hometown of Houston really shines,” says Ginsberg. “Each cocktail represents a different aspect of his city and our industry.” More good news for Houston locals: Ware will be serving these drinks for a limited time at Johnny’s Gold Brick.
Ware certainly earned the $15,000 grand prize, but he doesn’t view that as the most valuable takeaway: “Winning is a happy byproduct of the competition. But what really matters is developing relationships and gaining exposure. More people should get involved to enjoy the people you meet and the exchange of information between people on the East Coast and West Coast and everywhere in between.”