As the golden afternoon sun (in a welcome break from the seasonal Saigon rain) beamed in on the Tre Dining balcony during the August 28th final, it illuminated the passion of the five young finalists competing for the title in the 3rd I-Bartender Competition. Here’s the inside story of what happened.
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
Last time around, in this upstart mixology competition, organized by Hoa Sen University, I-Bartender welcomed five esteemed judges. There were Thep Dinh, from Stir – Modern Classic Cocktail. Monin’s Beverage Innovation Leader Tu Thanh Truong. The Gin House’s Tan Thanh Vuu. Christina Mai Ninh from Black Eyes Compass. And Jérémy Faucan, on his home turf of The Deck Saigon, to judge the challenging event.
“Why I-Bartender?” Victoria Vo, Director at Hoa Sen University’s Tourism Faculty, and one of the driving forces behind the competition, asks. “‘I’ is the initial for lots of things we wanted to incorporate into this event. There’s imagination, creating a good impression, and having an interest in the art of bartending.”
And, she explains, the focus of I-Bartender is on young, up-and-coming bartenders aged between 18 and 24. “We want to give young bartenders a platform. And a chance to compete in an international-standard event. But also the I-Bartender competition aims to give back. It provides the entrants with lots of expert training, workshops, and insights along the way.”
The Road To The Final At I-Bartender 2022
At I-Bartender season 2, the champion was The Deck Saigon’s own Tran Van Minh Tai. And the 1st and 2nd runners-up (respectively) were Nguyen Hoang Long and Tran Khanh Duong.
This year, as the world opens up, the 3rd I-Bartender competition, called ‘Flawsome Diversity’, looked inwards. And it posed some exacting challenges based on local ingredients.
“Sourcing locally has endless benefits. There’s the freshness of the ingredients. The way they can conjure memories and emotions. A reduced environmental impact. And using them can support the local economy,” Christina Mai Ninh explains.
“And ‘flawsome’ has this feeling of imperfection. There’s a bit of ‘awesome’ in there too. And ‘diversity’ applies both to the candidates hoping to win, and the local ingredients and inspiration we wanted them to incorporate,” she adds.
At the final, called ‘I-AM’ held on 29 August, the top ten – selected during the semi-finals hosted at LABAR – were given the theme: ‘Vocal For Local.’ Thep Dinh, former winner of World Class Vietnam, understands mixology competitions well. He set some deliberately difficult final challenges.
The ten candidates had to create a trending style of cocktail, like a highball, a clarified Old Fashioned or a molecular Negroni, that incorporated a maximum of five ingredients with preference for local products (excluding the garnish). And then, they got six minutes to make and present it to the judges.
And it’s testament to the I-Bartender organizing team’s energy that lots of judges from the previous year stuck around for another season.
Besides Thep Dinh, Christina Mai Ninh and Jérémy Faucan both returned from I-Bartender 2021, at a new venue, District 2’s hip Tre Dining. And they were joined for the final by Aris Sanjaya Putra, HYLO Vietnam’s group mixologist who works across their stylish venues like Bam Bam, Rocka Fella and Aalto. Joining them was Nguyen The Tan, from Monin’s innovation team, representing Vietnam and Cambodia.
Aris has entered many competitions in his career. He took 1st place in The Master Mixology Competition Goes To Thailand Competition 2019. He was Top 3 at Diageo World Class Indonesia in 2019. And he took 3rd place at the Campari National Competition 2019. So, naturally, he had lots of thoughts to share.
“The important thing is to learn how to fail,” Aris smiles. “It’s inevitable that you’ll fall down. But it’s essential that you pick yourself up, learn from the experience, and try again. I like to see young bartenders that are hungry to keep learning more…but also ones that like to have fun behind the bar!”
“Right,” Christina agrees, “entering competitions like I-Bartender takes a bit of bravery. But there’s so much joy to be had in competing. If you don’t try, you’ll never know how good you are, or how good you can be. There’s the mantra ‘don’t quit’. Take away the middle four letters and you get ‘do it!’”
Even the I-Bartender winner from 2021, Tran Van Minh Tai, returned to act as event MC.
The Final Five
The five bartenders who qualified for the prestigious final round, after the judges had the chance to carefully deliberate, were Nguyen Van Vu, Nguyen Quang Huy, Vo Van Thanh, Duong Ho Phuong Uyen and Dang Ngoc Kinh.
I-Bartender set a final ‘Hit Or Miss’ challenge. For the challenge, they had to choose one base local ingredient, lucky dip-style, and to turn it into a great cocktail with only ten minutes preparation time and five minutes to present.
Nguyen Quang Huy, drew brown rice. He combined it with red beans and black sesame to create a beverage that conjured up flavors of the north of Vietnam. Vo Van Thanh, in his dashing black fedora, drew the refreshing and ubiquitous streetside drink, sugar cane juice as his ingredient. He added kumquat, lemongrass and white rum, to create a refreshing, fruity and aromatic ode to nuoc mia.
Nguyen Van Vu drew lotus seeds. He added some lemon juice, and the award-winning Vietnamese gin, Song Cai, to create a drink inspired by local brands and flavors.
Duong Ho Phuong Uyen, the only female bartender to make the last five, got nuoc sam – the herbal drink – and created a summer cooler that included white rum and syrup.
Finally, Dang Ngoc Kinh, a familiar face from Phu Quoc’s best speakeasy, Bittersweet and Co., got com ruou, fermented glutinous rice. He added it to a base of TA Vodka, and added some kumquat shrub, and yogurt to create a vodka milk punch.
And The Winner Of I-Bartender Season 3 Is…
After the tense and nerve-wracking final five heat, the I-Bartender team announced that in second and third places were Vo Van Thanh and Duong Ho Phuong Uyen. And the winner was…Bittersweet’s Dang Ngoc Kinh.
“So, I used TA Vodka, a made-in-Vietnam vodka, as the base. Then I really wanted to balance the strong fermented flavor of the com ruou, so I used a kumquat shrub, yogurt and coconut water to make a kind of vodka milk punch,” Dang Ngoc Kinh explained proudly.
“But, overall, there’s so much pressure, especially in that final round,” Dang Ngoc Kinh adds. “It’s just a mix of emotions, nervousness, surprise when you discover the secret ingredient, then some excitement…and fear! You have to grab the ingredients you think work and go with it and hope.”
“I feel like winning I-Bartender marks the real beginning of my career,” Dang Ngoc Kinh adds. “I lost a lot of sleep during the competition. Then I had to wake up early to prepare and compete. But I gained a lot of experience. Plus, I got to know some wonderful colleagues more deeply.”
Finally, we wonder what co-founders Truong and Minh of Bittersweet & Co. and Saigon sister bar, Dot had to say to him afterwards. “Of course they were full of congratulations and praise…but they were quick to remind me never to rest on my laurels,” Dang Ngoc Kinh laughs.
Photos by Tri Nhan and Dai Tran for The Dot Magazine.