Nick Nelson, the U.S. brand manager for Finlandia Vodka, is in a prime position to witness how mixology competitions evolved over the last few years, as more bartenders enter and more local, national and international contests start up. So Mix drops in for a visit as the U.S. finals of the International Finlandia Vodka Cup get under way.
NCB Mix: In the age of bartender competitions, the International Finlandia Vodka Cup can claim some longevity. Share the details with me: How many bartenders compete? From how many nations? How long has it been going on?
Nick Nelson: The International Finlandia Vodka Cup Finals is in its 13th year. Last year was our largest competition to date. We had 32 bartenders from 32 different nations around the world, from Poland to the U.S., and Ecuador to Thailand.
NCB Mix: Has the quality of competitors gone up since the competition began?
Nelson: The overall quality of the global bartending scene is going up. With competitions like the Finlandia Vodka Cup and the Internet, bartenders from all over the world are sharing knowledge and tricks of the trade to really improve the quality of cocktails. It truly is a global bartending community.
NCB Mix: Have the steps to winning gotten tougher over the years? Have you changed the requirements, in other words, as bartenders become more skilled?
Nelson: One of the biggest changes for competitors in the Finals is the addition of the Iron Chef style category called the "Quick Mix." In the “Quick Mix” category, contestants are given a mystery basket of drink ingredients 10 minutes prior to the competition. During that time, each contestant has to invent a new drink recipe and then they're given five more minutes to mix the concoction. Any extra time results in losing valuable points. This category really challenges each competitor’s mixology skills. To help U.S. competitors prepare, we are working with Tony Abou-Ganim to conduct a one-on-one seminar with the U.S. winner in Vegas. During the training, the competitor is presented with two training “mystery” baskets with ingredients such as fresh fruits and syrups to test the bartenders thought process and prepare them for the time constraints.
NCB Mix: What sort of differences in skills do you see in terms of nations or countries?
Nelson: I think the biggest difference is palate. Bartenders from Latin America and the U.S. tend to make sweeter drinks than in Europe. When we select the U.S. winner, we look for bartenders that really understand balance in a cocktail because our judging pool for the Finlandia Vodka Cup comes from all over the world, therefore it is critical to offer balanced cocktails.
NCB Mix: What's the one major flaw, or weakness, you'd advise U.S. bartenders competing internationally to work on?
Nelson: The key is balance. Any skilled bartender knows what that means. It is the combination of alcohol content to sweets and acids. It all comes into play. Good bartenders really shine in the "Quick Mix category" of the Finlandia Vodka Cup because it shows how well they understand balance.
NCB Mix: As someone who oversees this event, what part do you find most exciting and interesting?
Nelson: I think the most interesting part of the competition is the creativity of the recipes. Some bartenders use common items like liqueurs and fruits. Others make elaborate syrups and exotic ingredients like dragon fruit. The key with this competition, though, is appearance is only a small portion of the competition but taste reigns. Matter of fact, it is 20 points out of the 35 total points a drink can receive (20 taste, 7 appearance, 4 aroma, 4 overall impression).
NCB Mix: What, besides showcasing Finlandia, does the event accomplish?
Nelson: The Finlandia Vodka Cup brings bartenders from all over the world to share ideas on the profession of bartending. In the three years I have been involved in the competition, I know many bartenders who attended a Vodka Cup still stay in touch with one another. It really brings the bartending community together.
NCB Mix: Finally, what cocktail are you drinking these days?
Nelson: Well, my favorite is Finlandia Grapefruit on the rocks. It is hard to beat that flavor by itself. But, when I travel, I frequent well-known mixology bars to try recipes from America’s best bartenders. I am still amazed by the creativity and professionism I see in the U.S. Without question, the U.S. bartender is raising the bar and can compete on a global scale. Patricia Richards, our U.S. winner from last year, proved that. She had the best U.S. finish (4th) to date in the Finlandia Vodka Cup. We want to win this year!