There was a whole lot of shaking going on in London's Covent Garden on 25 June as Detroit, Bruce Isaacs's and Matthew Arden's reborn basement bar and restaurant on Earlham Street, played host to the inaugural Cointreau Cocktail Competition. While 10 game boys from some of London's smartest bars spurred themselves on to their finest efforts, a panel of five judges led by Antony Worrall Thompson sat and soberly sipped at the results.
The competition is the brainchild of PR consultant Jori White and is supported, for this year at least, by Cointreau. About two-dozen bars were approached and, for the final shake-off, the contenders had to produce a traditional White Lady (gin, Cointreau, lemon juice, a splash of gomme and a blob of egg white) as well as a signature cocktail of their own, which naturally had to include Cointreau.
In addition to appearance and, of course, taste, the judges were looking for a stylish presentation and performance from each barman. Not all the tricks of the trade ran as smoothly as they might have. That occupational hazard of the cocktail barman - the shaker cap sticking fast to the strainer as the metal chills down - cramped the style of a few lads. (Hammering it against the edge of the bar is the fastest remedy for that, it seems.) One wizard's trademark trick of sticking the straws to the outside of the glass by sheer condensation just wouldn't work for him in the steamy surroundings. But the atmosphere was hardly one of po-faced solemnity anyway, and much leeway was allowed.
Douglas Ankrah of the London School of Bartending was one of the judges. What makes a good cocktail barman, I wondered? "Style," was the reply - that elusive concept. As with much else, you either got it or you don't, baby. "It's the way they hold the bottles, the way they judge the measures, handle the glasses, garnish them. There has to be something debonair." And are they looking for Tom Cruise-type pyrotechnics? "Absolutely not," says Ankrah. "All that's so eighties."
Nick Andreen from the Chapel looks pretty debonair with his honey-blond ponytail and pierced nose. He belongs to the topless school of shaking, in that he doesn't bother with the cap but wedges an ice-crammed pint glass into the mouth of the shaker and flips the liquids deftly between the two. You need extremely supple wrists in this game, and Andreen's won him the second runner-up spot. Just ahead of him was Tristan Putt from Mondo's, whose pouring action, a close-contact charging of the shaker as affectingly tender as offering a bottle to a baby, delighted the judges.
Winner, and Cointreau Bartender of the Year, was Detroit's very own Dick Bradsell, a man with a CV that reads like an A-Z of chic London drinking. Bradsell has shaken his stuff at the Zanzibar, the Groucho, the Flamingo, and the Soho Brasserie, while Dick's Bar at the Atlantic was named after him. His signature cocktail, Crème de la Crème, was the only cream cocktail produced all night - an unctuous mixture of cognac, Cointreau, orange bitters, double cream, gomme and a squirt of soda. One sip produced the broadest smile of the night from AWT.
A cream cocktail must be a banker, surely? "It is in a cocktail competition," Bradsell says. "I imagined that there would be quite a lot of sour flavours around, so I thought I'd make the judges something a little more comforting."
And what is his secret? "Understanding the wishes of the customer. When people come to a bar they're looking for a good time, and your job is about fulfilling that need. You must also be supremely confident about what you're doing."
When drinking off-duty, Bradsell himself often asks a bartender for his "best drink", a sure-fire way of assessing confidence if ever there was.
The title's first winner generously professes himself amazed by the standard of many of his peers. He thinks he probably won't enter again next year, which should at least allow one of the young pretenders to get a foot in the door. For the time being, as the award goes to London's foremost mover and shaker of recent years, there is a feeling that, to coin a phrase, the cocktail's coming home.