These days cocktails are an art form. And their creators attain near-mythical status. Like any service-industry profession, we only get to see the flash finished product, and not the endless hours put into perfecting it. World Class 2023 winner Nguyen Tuan Anh’s drinks are a good example.
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
DIAGEO’s World Class is probably the most prestigious of all cocktail competitions – think an Oscar only shaped like a shaker. There’s reasons for that. First off, World Class is on a mission to put mixology, or ‘fine drinking,’ up there alongside fine dining. And the cocktail competition itself is exacting.
The World Class preliminary round whittles the contestants down to the final twenty who compete over two days. There’s three themed challenges that the bartenders prepare for. Then, the final eight face off, two versus two, in a timed final speed round. The winner goes on to the global final. In 2022, there were 50 participants from all over the world. This year, that means World Class Vietnam winner Nguyen Tuan Anh, the founder of Hanoi’s USEbar and bar manager of The Haflington, is headed to Rio.
Born Into The Industry
Maybe all this was inevitable. Tuan Anh’s family have owned restaurants for three generations. So, he remembers, even as a child, he’d be hypnotized by the steam rising from a pan or the glowing charcoal of a grill. He’d get to try all kinds of ingredients too. So, after graduating, and getting a job in a bar, he saw the connection, and stuck with it. “I think that’s been about eight years now,” he says, counting off the years on his fingers.
It’s been a period of intense growth and recognition for the bar industry in Vietnam. World Class Vietnam started just before that, in 2012 (and the global event started in 2009). And in 2021, Vietnam’s bars got Asia’s 50 Best Bars recognition for the first time ever, with three bars placed in the newly launched 51-100 list: Summer Experiment, the highest at #77, followed by Hybrid Nha Trang, and Hanoi’s Nê Cocktail Bar.
This year, at the awards in Hong Kong, The Haflington was one of only three bars in Vietnam again to reach the extended 51-100 list.
Having had the chance to watch this evolution first hand, Tuan Anh is optimistic. “In the last few years, we’ve seen bars emerge with very strong concepts and cocktail menus to match,” he nods. There’s momentum too, he feels. “I think we’re definitely on a roll. And, personally, I get to see the enthusiasm of people in the industry. That assures me that it won’t be long before a bar here reaches the top 50 in Asia, and Vietnam becomes known globally as a place for cocktail lovers!”
Tuan Anh’s achievements at World Class Vietnam 2023 are part of that growing momentum.
Beyond lifting the prize at the end, he reminds us, the competition forces such high-standards from competitors, that all the practice in the run up to the event, serves them well beyond the final day, win or lose. “I think I spent around 12 hours per day practicing!” Tuan Anh shakes his head. “You can always get better. And there’s so many components – responding to the brief well, developing cocktails, improving presentation skills, and even learning to handle the unexpected mishap.”
It takes, he says, some humility. “Although we’ve risen to higher positions in the industry, you have to forget that. You’re judged on your performance and the drink you make that day. That’s all.”
A Sustainable Vietnamese Cocktail bar
Most nights, outside of competition, you’ll find him at USEbar. Inside there the lounge chairs look like they were made by Jeff Koons, and a petrified tree branch hangs above the bar which glows enigmatically.
“At USEbar,” he says, “we delve into the deliciousness of each ingredient and leverage them into our cocktails. No ingredients are superfluous.”
Besides that, they take a multisensory approach to making drinks. “We’re born into, and explore, the world with our five senses, so why shouldn’t that be the case with discovering a cocktail?” he asks. So, at USEbar, they’ll slip some VR goggles on a guest to enhance the experience, or for their Mystic Jungle cocktail they use truffle, saffron and a special herbal liqueur to create complex floral and earthy flavors that make you feel like you’re going deeper into the forest.
There’s something timeless about what they’re doing there. “We kind of skipped past the trends,” Tuan Anh nods. “I want to show the craft in what we do, and prove that the work of a bartender is more than just making drinks…”
He took that spirit into the World Class Competition too.
Salvaging The Castaways
Specifically, at USEbar and in competition he uses, for example, jackfruit fiber – the part of the fruit usually cast aside. “But if you soak it for a long time, you get this strong jackfruit scent, only without the overly sweet aftertaste.”
At USEbar, that goes into their Jack’s Mine cocktail, “a drink that reflects the spirit of the bar: easy to access and easy to enjoy.”
He’ll use the skins from dragon fruit too – to add some red color to his cocktails – or he’ll take unsold brownies from nearby bakeries and soak them to get their fatty flavor, or he’ll use lemon peels to make essential oils.
Adding Value, “Makes me happy.”
There’s benefit to the community too, he hopes, by adding economic value to ingredients that usually get thrown away. Besides creating economic value for society by using throw-away ingredients, USEbar also gives a small part of its profits from selected beverages towards volunteer activities to support the community.
“Every small action can make a difference,” he assures us. So, they also willingly share recipes, like the one for Jack’s Mine, to customers and colleagues so they can rescue some jackfruit fiber too.
“And that makes me happy,” he decides. “Seeing that philosophy take me to the World Class Vietnam title proves that we are doing the right thing and that our vision for USEbar was the right one.”