How I sipped 20 drinks in Finland and lived to write about it. Soberly.Illustration by Josh Cochran
So, I'm talking to a guy in a bar - actually, a whole bunch of guys, most of whom are bartenders. We're in Helsinki's newest and grooviest boutique hotel, the Klaus K, squished together in an all-white design symphony that screams snow. We aren't drinking (yet); after all, it's only nine o'clock in the morning. Instead, we're enduring a tedious but necessary meeting about the organization of the event we have come to cover as journalists - or, in the case of the bartenders in the crowd, to compete in for fame and fortune. "Welcome," says our host, "to the eighth annual Finlandia Vodka Cup, a mixology competition."
It's the first morning after the first night, and we've all been gathered together to learn what our duties during the competition are to be.
"Please, please, all competitors in the corner," says Markku Raittinen, Finlandia's global ambassador of vodka, at which time 24 bartenders from around the world drag themselves to the appropriate spot.
"Journalists, here - no, there - actually, here," he says, making our heads ache (more than they already do, mind you, thanks to the late-night cavorting we did in Helsinki's energetic bar scene the evening before). At last, in our assigned places, we listen to the rules of tomorrow's contest, which will determine the best bartender and the best Finlandia vodka drinks in the world. There will be an American heat in the morning, and the world finals in the afternoon. Each bartender will make three types of cocktails: an aperitif, a long drink, and a dessert drink. They must make each drink, garnishes and all, in under seven minutes - and they will do it all in an ice bar 95 miles from southern, coastal Helsinki. In fact, they'll be way up north, in landlocked, icy cold Finnish Lapland.
This is the first year Americans have been invited to participate in the contest, and five (from five different regions) are among the crowd. Only the winner of the American heat will go on to compete in the international finals. The bartenders, a marvelous mix from across the globe, from Kazakhstan to Israel to Italy, come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and genders. What they have in common is the desire to become Finlandia's Bartender of the Year and to please the judges, an international crew of highly touted cocktail connoisseurs such as Dale DeGroff, a.k.a. the King of Cocktails - a Dean Martin-type character who opened the Rainbow Room in New York and was Zsa Zsa Gabor's chauffeur in the golden era of Broadway. These days, he travels the globe teaching cocktail politics, perfecting recipes, authoring columns and books, and mentoring young bartenders who aspire to be like him. Then, there's a demonic duo of drink dictators hailing from London, together known as the Soul Shakers (individually known as Michael B and Giles Looker), who conceptualize bars internationally - from interior design to drink menu. Other judges include prominent bar owners, past competition winners, and employees of Brown-Forman, the Louisville, Kentucky-based company that owns Finlandia Vodka.