"Ready, steady, shake!" says Markku Raittinen, and the bartenders begin. An impossibly tiny bartender, a veritable sprite from Ukraine, grins fiendishly as she measures ingredients; a strapping, former professional basketball player from Belgrade struggles with matches to light orange peels for his garnishes; and a handsome Turk rubs his hands together between shaking canisters. Thrill joins the chill in the air as the seven minutes speed by. Some bartenders work studiously, their manner sober and profound. Others play to the audience, raising bottles like the holy sacrament before pouring thin streams into tall glasses.
As a judge, I must retire to the "panic room," a heated room adjacent to the bar, and prepare to receive the drinks. It's hard to leave the frosty dither of the competition. Already briefed, I know that drinks will be judged by taste, aroma, aesthetics, and star quality, an all-encompassing category that includes the power of the drink's name. My team of four, led by Soul Shaker Michael B, gets serious. Though I have been hoping to spit, Michael threatens me with my life. "Nobody on my team spits out a cocktail. You must swallow it in order to experience its entire palette." I see. My hopes of remaining moderately unscathed and uninebriated are immediately dashed.
The drinks arrive on trays and are arranged on the table before us. The effect is that of a living tablecloth - especially in the after-dinner-drink category, where all the cocktails have a moody, evening-gown feel to them. Immediately overwhelmed, I rummage through my papers, pick up a pen, and wonder where to begin. My fellow professional judges have commenced to sniffing, quaffing, and gazing at the drinks at arm's length. So I dive in - one straw at a time.
In this mad muddle of tempting potations, all is chaos. It's not long before I find myself drink-dazed, giddy as a goose. The cocktails seem to come alive, growing little faces that talk to me. "Drink me, drink me!" they seem to be saying. I concentrate on one compelling libation at a time. All the while, the deranged, slave-driving head judge cracks his whip, saying "Focus, judges; hurry, judges; just 10 minutes more." A drink with floating strawberries begins to overlap with a garishly garnished (think a chunky bananas-and-cherries configuration) milkshake-like beverage. I gather courage and forge ahead, sipping, swallowing, sniffing, and stargazing. At last, I get nearly 20 drinks down the hatch - thankfully not in their entirety. I push them aside and complete my paperwork. I have sipped like a fiend and lived to tell the story. I swagger up the stairs and immerse myself in the ice bar.