Wellingtonians Take Out Top Spots For Highball NZ Bartender Of The Year
Wellington can now claim the title of Cocktail Capital, with two Wellingtonian bartenders winning the top spots for the Highball New Zealand Bartender of the Year competition, which saw competitors go shaker to shaker over two intensive days, during Highball, New Zealand’s only cocktail and spirits festival, at the Dominion Museum Building.
Alex Vowels from Tory’s Street’s Hawthorn Lounge took out the cocktail crown, with Dan Felsing from Manners Street’s Crumpet taking second place, and Andrea Marseglia from Piku in Hawkes Bay winning third place.
The national bartending competition, which had been on hiatus since 2008, saw 28 competitors from Auckland to Wanaka, partake in a high intensity, electric six-part tournament, where they mixed, blended and shook their way to showcase their skills - all garnished with oodles of bartending flair. Energy and entertainment was high with the rat-a-tat of three shakers being simultaneously slung in one go by a single participant; another bartender’s spontaneous lip syncing to Italian opera as he poured multiple cocktails and another finish their speed challenge with a video selfie of a roomful of whooping spectators cheering him on as the cherry on top.
Bartenders were put through their paces with challenges such as a two-hour written exam, a blind whisky tasting and a cocktail-making round, inspired by lockdown, where bartenders made drinks with common ingredients found at home. From there, 20 competitors were eventually whittled down to eight for the finals, where they made five cocktails in five minutes.
Alex Vowles, winner of Highball NZ Bartender of the Year, said the win was “completely surreal, to be honest”, after two days of gruelling, intensive competitive conditions.
“The hardest aspect was the waiting in the lead up to the challenges. I was nervous the entire time until the moment I was writing the exam; prepping ingredients; behind the bar; making a drink. Then, I wasn’t so nervous, because that’s what we do every day. I felt confident when I was up there - not that I would win, but that I’d do well,” he said.
Alex said competitions like Highball NZ Bartender of the Year created a huge sense of community, and were important for strengthening the skill set of bartenders and quality of the industry.
“It gives bartenders a higher level to aspire to. There’s people here who have never done a cocktail competition before who got into the final eight, and that’s just brilliant. It gives people that next level to strive towards. It’s such a learning adventure. The more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know,” he says.
“Seeing all the other competitors, they were so good. Every single one of them had a chance at winning it. I can now call every single one of these finalists my close friends after this, and I didn’t even know half of them beforehand!”
Riki Carter, Highball Manager and competition organiser, said the rebooted comp was a tremendous success, especially since it hadn’t taken place for a long time, and considering many of the competing bartenders in 2021 weren’t in the industry for the last one in 2008.
“All the bartenders had their strengths across the rounds - certain parts like the two-hour exam were extremely challenging. But there’s a lot of potential for them to grow, and now they have a learning experience from this, and can go and work on those things for next year’s comp,” he says.
“Competitions where they can showcase their hands on skills and knowledge are really important for their professional development. Compared to overseas, where bartending is seen as a legitimate profession, New Zealand bartenders don’t get many opportunities to compete regularly or get professional support from spirits companies, due to our population size and, geographically, being way down at the bottom of the world.”
He had high praise for Alex, saying, ”He won every round and by a good margin on each. These strengths are defined by the bars where one works at, and how they develop their bartenders. Justin McKenzie, Alex’s boss at Hawthorn, really emphasises the full skill set - it’s not only about making drinks, it’s about the service, knowing your products and the knowledge behind drinks.”
He said Highball hoped to grow the comp by adding a few more elements and change it up to challenge bartenders each year.
“We don’t want to rest on our laurels. For me, it’s getting new and younger bartenders involved and developing their skills as well. It gives passion and something to drive forward to. Sometimes it’s harder for them to feel like they're progressing, especially in New Zealand where bartending is not so much considered a profession the way it is overseas. If we can grow these bartenders - their knowledge and confidence - then they, along with the consumer and industry all win,” he says.
He also credited sponsors, Federal Merchants & Co, in reviving the challenge and making it such a success, saying, “It’s all good to have a brainchild, but you need to have that support, and without them we wouldn’t have had this competition.”
In previous years of the New Zealand Bartender of the Year, winners have gone on to compete at Diageo World Class, one of the world’s biggest and most prestigious global bartending competitions. However, due to current travel restrictions, Alex has won a trip to Sydney Bar Week (18-21 Sept), where he will have the opportunity to hone his professional development with masterclasses and mingling with the best in the industry. He also wins a cash prize of $1,200 and $500 of Federal Merchant & Co. products.
Over the weekend more than 1500 people attended Highball, the country’s only cocktail and spirits festival. It was the second time the two-day festival had been held, after postponement due to the global pandemic in 2020, and the first time the event was held at the Dominion Museum Building. Festival goers had the opportunity to imbibe spirits and cocktails alongside educational experiences such as the Highball Speakers Series, the Highball Blending Room (where people could blend their own spirits and learn about the distillation process) and watch challenges for the Highball NZ Bartender of the Year.