I-Bartender Cocktail Competition 2023’s Top 5 Tell Us What It Was Like Going ‘Back To The Future’

I-Bartender Top 5

As barometers for the bartending industry’s expansion go, the I-Bartender Cocktail Competition is a great one. That’s because the annual event, organized by Hoa Sen University, focuses on bartending in its most youthful incarnation – entrants have to be under 23 years of age and have less than one year experience working in a bar. 

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt

This year, there was an impressive number of female bartenders entering the Back To The Future movie series inspired contest – in fact, of the finale’s top five, four were female – and there were entrants from as far apart as Hai Phong and Can Tho.

Huy Anh from Hanoi House cocktail bar
Huy Anh from Hanoi House: “Looking around Tre Dining during my presentation, I realized that I’ve got another family here with me – my friends, colleagues and this community. And that made me happy.

The competitors, who submitted videos for a chance to enter, were supported by the event’s mentors and judges, Christina Mai Ninh, Thep Dinh, Kata Simon, Jérémy Faucan and David Kaye.

Like the movies, the three rounds were themed ‘The Past,’ ‘The Future’ and then ‘The Present.’ The first round was by online submission. And then the tense ‘The Future’ semi-final was held at Wink Hotel Saigon Centre, where the top 20 were reduced to 10 finalists. We added one more, with a wild card vote on social media.

So, 11 finalists, and a large crowd, gathered at Tre Dining in Thao Dien on August 14 for a tense face off which saw 11 bartenders challenged to create a cocktail with a ‘Harmonious Combination’ by marrying nostalgia with innovation. Then, the final 5 had to make a drink based on ‘Your Present Day Self’ – a liberating challenge where contestants could express their creativity and their understanding of craft while weaving in their personal narrative. And then all that was left to do was to announce the winners.

We got the inside story from all five top ranked bartenders in the final ‘The Present’ round. There’s the winner Khanh Bao, from TÁO Wine Bar & Kitchen, the runners up, Mai Nghi from Dot Bar and Luu Huyen Trang from 419 Cocktail Bar, and the bartenders in 4th and 5th place, Ngoc Ly from Xào Xạc Bar, and Huy Anh, from Hanoi House.

Marco Dongi watching I-Bartender final
Award-winning bartender Marco Dongi, from The House Of Sathorn in Bangkok, watching the final.

What drink did you make in the final round and what does it taste like?

Ngoc Ly: I made a cocktail based on the classic Aviation. So, I added some Huong Nhu and a foam layer and some basil powder. I wanted the drink to be fruity and floral with herb aromas and some sweetness from basil syrup. 

Mai Nghi: I called my final drink ‘Nakedness’! It was a twist on the Old Fashioned – the drink that made me want to become a bartender in the first place. I used Bushmills Original, and slow cooked it with banana and peanut butter. You get those sweet flavors coming through in the drink. I added a little bit of Monin’s French vanilla syrup rather than using sugar, and some black walnut bitter to add balance. 

Luu Huyen Trang: My final drink was ‘Bamboo Tube Cooked Rice & Grilled Chicken.’ It was inspired by my hometown. I really want to incorporate stories and deeper meaning into the drinks I make. Here, I wanted to take the unusual route of going from cuisine into a cocktail, to give the judges that ‘wow’ feeling. The drink had a strong umami taste. When you drink it, the roasted sticky rice has some light smoked flavor, which matches the whisky base. I milk-washed the chicken broth, and added some lemon basil oil to create a real flavor explosion in your mouth.

Huy Anh: I really put my heart into this drink (even though I didn’t finish it to my satisfaction). It was a cocktail full of my feelings, thoughts, and some of my story in it. It was about love too. The inspiration came from the Gimlet and the Margarita – the first drink I ever made and also my girlfriend’s favorite cocktail. In my version, the first flavor to hit you is lavender with notes of lemon and rose.

Khanh Bao: In this round, I made a drink inspired by my favorite cocktail, the Boulevardier. I used ingredients like corn and hops to give the cocktail a sweet and bitter taste, with lots of woody, herbal notes.

Mai Nghi battling to 2nd place at I-Bartender 2023.
Mai Nghi from Dot Bar: “Honestly, I really felt like giving up sometimes during the contest. So, that’s definitely one thing I learned – to never give up!”

Which mentors helped you with your achievements?

Luu Huyen Trang: I learned a lot from the mentors of I-Bartender. It felt like more than just a competition. It was more like a training course. Kata Simon probably inspired me the most. She has an energy that I want to replicate. But also her fastidiousness and her meticulousness are things I aspire to as well. 

Khan Bao: My most valuable support came from the team at TÁO Wine Bar & Kitchen. Elia and Jaden helped me so much. But then so did the event’s mentors. 

Huy Anh: For me it’s the whole team at Hanoi House. They are the best and I love every single one of them. They’ve taught me all I know. I’d like to give a special mention to Duc Anh from Element Bar and Khanh Duong from Hanoi House Bar. They’re like brothers to me. 

Ngoc Ly: The competition mentors, Christina Mai Ninh, Thep Dinh, Kata Simon, David Kaye and Jérémy Faucan, really taught me a lot. They helped me to understand more about taste and flavor, presentation, and being self-confident. They taught me some tough lessons too. Now I know I need to try harder!

The Top 5 announcement at I-Bartender 2023
The tense moment when the final five were revealed. “The announcement of the Top 5 was so nerve wracking,” Khanh Bao [right] remembers.

What was the scariest moment and what was the happiest moment in the final round?

Khanh Bao: The announcement of the Top 5 was so nerve wracking. To be honest, I just wanted to get through the event, and this wave of relief hit me when I’d finished. 

Ngoc Ly: I was desperate to win the I-Bartender Season 4 contest. So, it was a scary moment when the results were announced at the end. I felt all eyes were on me.

And, finishing outside the top 3, I was so worried I’d let people down. But, with some time to process everything, I’ve realized what a big learning it’s been for me. I know more about where I am, and what I need to do to improve. And it was reassuring that my friends stuck with me. I’ve gained a lot by being a part of I-Bartender Season 4.

Mai Nghi: This was my first bartending contest. And that was scary! I don’t have as much technical knowledge as the others. But, I got lots of encouragement and support. It was such a joyful moment being able to share my runner-up prize with everyone – I couldn’t have done it without them.

“What I learned is to be confident in your own abilities,” Khanh Bao, the competition winner, says.

Luu Huyen Trang: I was definitely more nervous in the semi-finals. And I only just scraped through thanks to the vote you guys did in The Dot Magazine for a wild card finalist. The semi-final really showed me what I needed to develop. Overall, I guess my expectations were low when I got to the final. So, I could just relax and be myself. Having my team with me, and my family and friends from Gia Lai meant a lot too. Then, when the final rankings were announced, I saw the happiness in everyone’s eyes and that made me incredibly happy too. 

Huy Anh: This is a bit personal too. But, to be honest, the hardest part was ignoring the disapproval from my family to pursue this career path and this competition. But, looking around Tre Dining during my presentation, I realized that I’ve got another family here with me – my friends, colleagues and this community. And that made me happy.

Aviation inspired cocktail at I-Bartender
Ngoc Ly’s final round drink. “I wanted the drink, based on an Aviation, to be fruity and floral with herb aromas and some sweetness from basil syrup.” 

Looking back, what were the 3 biggest things you learned at I-Bartender Season 4? And what tip would you give the entrants to season 5 next year?

Khanh Bao: Overall, what I learned is to be confident in your own abilities. And, perhaps most important of all, prepare well! Finally, treat the judges as if they’re your guests and serve them as best you can. 

Huy Anh: Three things? Confidence, confidence, confidence! Believe in yourself. That’s the advice I’d give to next year’s contestants too.

Luu Huyen Trang: Wow, I learned so many lessons. The biggest 3 would be to prepare everything carefully for every step of the way. I also think to be yourself and to never stop learning. And finally, successful bartenders don’t simply make good cocktails. It’s the way we serve our drinks to create the ultimate experience for our guests that makes us great. 

Bartender Luu Huyen Trang
Luu Huyen Trang: “Overall, I guess my expectations were low when I got to the final. So, I could just relax and be myself.”

Mai Nghi: Honestly, I really felt like giving up sometimes during the contest. So, that’s definitely one thing I learned – never give up! And never beat yourself up about things. Of course you’re not perfect, and no one expects you to be perfect. I think it’s really important to be true to yourself too. Yeah, just be the best version of yourself that you can be. 

Ngoc Ly: I don’t even know where to start. I learned so much. I feel the I-Bartender competition was a really fair contest. And, as I mentioned, it really helped me to assess where I am. I know the next season in 2024 will be even more amazing. So, to the entrants next time around, I’d say conquer your fears and go make some great drinks! 

Khanh Bao's final drink
Khanh Bao’s winning drink in the final round.

And what’s next for you as a bartender?

Khanh Bao: Give me more competitions! Having won this one, I really want to join more. It’s not about winning, it’s about learning from the other contestants and mentors. 

Luu Huyen Trang: I’m the same. I-Bartender season 4 helped me realize that I want to go much further in this industry. It’s really given me the confidence to enter more competitions. I’m hungry for more chances to learn. 

Ngoc Ly: I completely agree too. Only by entering competitions like this do you get to truly challenge yourself. Give me more as well!

Huy Anh: I don’t tend to look too far ahead in life. I just know that in the short term, I’ll keep seeking more knowledge. I’m proud to keep pursuing this path I’ve chosen.

Mai Nghi: There’s so much to learn. I want to seek out that knowledge too. I want to be a great bartender in every possible way!

The winners of I-Bartender 2023
Khanh Bao celebrating first place: “Give me more competitions! Having won this one, I really want to join more. It’s not about winning, it’s about learning from the other contestants and mentors.”

Finally, what would we have found you drinking after the competition to recover?

Luu Huyen Trang: I love a good Whisky Sour. That drink made me fall in love with bartending. But try as I might, I couldn’t make one any near as good as the one I’d had. Actually, I started out making coffee and moved into cocktails after that. I just found them interesting. Drinking & Healing in Saigon also helped set me on this path. I loved the energy and the vibe there. Suddenly, being a bartender felt like it was cool. And I want to make that impact on other people now, to make them want to be bartenders too. 

The judges of I-Bartender 2023, David Kaye, Christina Mai Ninh, Kata Simon, Thep Dinh, Tan Nguyen and Jérémy Faucan
The judges and mentors unwinding after a long final day scoring [from left] David Kaye, Christina Mai Ninh, Kata Simon, Thep Dinh, Tan Nguyen and Jérémy Faucan.

Huy Anh: There’s two drinks I love to enjoy – a Negroni or a Highball. 

Ngoc Ly: I’m even more simple than that. Give me a Whisky Sour anytime. 

Khanh Bao: I got into this through working in restaurants. I’d listen to the bartenders sharing their knowledge and I just became fascinated. And ever since the beginning, I’ve always loved a Boulevardier and a Bijou

Mai Nghi: My favorite cocktail changes over time. Right now, it’s a Negroni. As I mentioned, the first cocktail I fell in love with was an Old Fashioned. It looked so easy to make. Just a quick stir and it was in my hand – or so I thought. Then I tried to make my own at home. And it was nothing like the same! So that got me hooked, learning the technique to replicate that flavor. 


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