2013 United States Bartenders’ Guild and DIAGEO World Class U.S. Bartender Competition

Jeff Bell putting the finishing touches on the "Refined Rapscallion"
Jeff Bell putting the finishing touches on the "Refined Rapscallion"

On Wednesday June 5th the Bohemian National Hall hosted the 2013 United Stated Bartenders’ Guild (USBG) and DIAGEO World Class U.S. Bartender Competition. 20 of the top U.S. bartenders (click for full list) proceeded to out mix, shake, stir and perform one another over the course of two days. Taking into account the judges and the various categories each bartender had to compete in makes this competition grander than most. The Spirits list for this event reads like a purchase order for any top-rated bar - Ketel One Vodka, Johnnie Walker, Don Julio, Bulleit Bourbon, Tanqueray Gin and Zacapa Rum, to name a few.

As mentioned, this competition took two days and put 20 bartenders through five rigorous trials. And each test was judged by a legend in the cocktail industry:

The Retro Chic Challenge

This encounter tasked the bartenders on their ability to work with recipes from the 70’s and 80’s, as well as, create a drink from that period.  Julie Reiner - Beverage director and owner of The Flatiron Lounge and Clover Club teamed up with Tony Abou-Ganim – Winner of three Iron Chef America competitions and writer of The Modern Mixologist to judge the cocktails created by the participants.

The Food Paring Challenge

The palates of all the competitors were put to the test by coupling a selection of nouveau American cuisine with a cocktail for Jim Meehan of PDT and author of The PDT Cocktail Book and Steve Olson of AKA Wine Geek.

The Ritual Theater Challenge

Judged by David Nepove – President of the United States Bartenders' Guild (USBG), also known as "Mr. Mojito" and the Director of Mixology for Southern Wine and Spirits. This encounter allowed the bartenders to use either a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label or Zacapa 23 Rum to draw out their inner thespian and invigorate their usual bar routine.

Neprove (center) tosses coin to see who will shake first in final standoff.
Neprove (center) tosses coin to see who will shake first in final standoff.

The last two challenges, Cocktails Against the Clock and Brand Mastery made sure that everyone brought their A+ game. For the twenty finalists making six classic cocktails in one night is not a huge feat, but crafting those six classics perfectly in less than eight minutes is where the true test of skill and time management lies. No spillage, no sloppy pours and every ounce judged on multiple categories. This particular challenge is played out at NASCAR speeds, balanced with the planning and forethought of a grand champion chess master- using high-end spirits, bitters and coupes.

The Brand Mastery Challenge in particular was a two pronged assault on the mental acumen of the finalists. Every iota of everything a bartender must know combined with the ability to communicate it effectively to the judges. From all accounts, this test makes the LSAT’s look like a page out of Highlights magazine. First, an exhaustive exam on two of the following categories:






Followed by blind tasting of DIAGEO Reserve spirits, where one must correctly identify the brand presented. It’s a test of sense memory, palate sensitivity and proving that your nose knows its spirits.

None of it easy and all of it worth going through to be named the 2013 USBG and DIAGEO World Class U.S.- And after 48 hours of tests, challenges and high end cocktail drama a winner was chosen…actually two winners. Yes, after all that, it came down to Jeff Bell (New York, NY) and Julio Cabrera (Miami, FL) in a tie for first – a feat unheard of in the history of the contest.

Since there can only be one, another contest was held. A commando style "Shake Off" where Bell and Cabrera were instructed to use whatever bar equipment (and ingredients) available in the hall to prepare their "perfect serve" cocktails for the five judges, in under seven minutes.  After thirty minutes of scrounging for tools and cocktail components, the last two bartenders standing were ready to do battle.

Congrats, Jeff!
Congrats, Jeff!

The drama of this competition wasn’t in how high either of them could toss a shaker full of booze into the air. The intrigue sprang from watching these two talented professionals go head-to-head to create cocktail perfection for a host of judges who have been there and done than more times than any of us dare to admit. The winner was chosen based on techniques honed to a razor’s edge over decades of hard labor behind a bar. Their ability to make precise, multiple, no measure pours factored into it as well. Personal style and the gift of presentation was also a deciding aspect for judges. And in the end it was a snappy kid from New York, Jeff Bell, who won it all.

As the winner of the 2013 United Stated Bartenders’ Guild and DIAGEO World Class U.S. Bartender Competition, Bell gets a special prize - a six-day cruise on the luxury Azamara Club Cruise. But wait, there’s more to this tale – Jeff has to compete against forty-nine other worldwide bartenders during the cruise! The challenges will take place while sailing along the Mediterranean coastline with stops in Nice, Monte Carlo, St. Tropez, Ibiza and Barcelona. So this is not a vacation, it’s the first leg in a very long journey that will further test Bell and his international competition. Break a jigger, Jeff!