Upstart Mixology Competition I-Bartender’s Second Edition Chose Three Young Winners To Watch Out For

The upstart bartender competition, I-Bartender, has a focus on the freshest young talent in the industry. To nurture them, at the final they welcomed five esteemed judges who finally crowned a top three after a series of tough mixology tests at the event hosted at The Deck Saigon. 

Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt

It’s still a young industry here. But recent recognition for Vietnam’s best bars in the extended top 100 list of Asia’s Best has shown a clear path to regional repute, helping raise bartending from simply serving up drinks to an art form and viable profession to pursue. Bars like Hybrid, Ne, and Summer Experiment are on the regional radar, but small bars like those have a limited number of mixologists, making it hard to break into the industry at the top level. Fortunately, it seems every week a buzzing new bar opens. And the team behind the I-Bartender contest intend to nurture the next generation of bartending talent coming through the ranks. 

Judges for the final round: Tu Thanh Truong, Jérémy Faucan, Christina Mai Ninh, Thep Dinh, and Tan Thanh Vuu.

I-Bartender was founded by Hoa Sen University. Over its two competitions, it’s been supported by Christina Mai Ninh. The Hoa Sen University graduate founded Black Eyes Compass, a creative operations and event consultancy. And so in 2020, under the guidance of tourism lecturer Victoria Vo, students on the course reached out to Christina to support the competition. She jumped at the chance. “With the idea of supporting young bartenders and students at my former university. I probably only had to think for a second or two before starting this amazing journey with them,” Christina says. 

Another of the event’s judges this year, Jérémy Faucan concurs: “I think that was the big attraction for me too, supporting students and helping to support the future generation of event managers and bartenders, and hopefully unearthing future stars of the industry.”

One of the big names in bartending here is Thep Dinh after his success at the Diageo World Class Vietnam competition and a career spanning Layla, Summer Experiment and now Stir – Modern Classic Cocktail. He also joined the judging panel for this content. “I really connected to the I-Bartending team’s energy,” he explains, “and their passion for this contest and for supporting the nightlife industry I’m a part of.”

“It’s not east for young competitors,” another of the judges, Monin’s Beverage Innovation Leader Truong Thanh Tu, reminds us. “The judging is tough, and these participants don’t have much experience. To survive and thrive in this industry, you need flexibility, maturity and some ingenuity – successful bartenders need to be creative to serve guests drinks that they’ll remember…and come back for.”

This second installment of I-Bartender that began gently with a talkshow in September also included both online and offline rounds, challenges and inspiring sessions including live rounds, webinars, open days and workshops. 

2nd Runner-Up Tran Khanh Duong from Hanoi House Bar in action.

“The concept of this non-profit contest is to invite judges who act more like mentors and coaches,” Christina explains. “Their inspirational stories are key to elevating this event, and exciting the contestants with the possibilities of this industry. Thanks to the concept, we’ve been blessed with the support of Monin, Pernod Ricard, Star Kombucha, Song Cai Distillery, and Elixir Hugariane Mango Brandy brands, and venues like 419, and The Deck this time. “Right,” Thep Dinh nods, “this is really our chance as judges to instill the idea that in an increasingly romanticized profession it’s all about working hard, trying hard, and of course playing hard.”

“We’re also watching out for some finer points of the profession being expressed,“ Jérémy, formerly of Bam Bam and now bar manager at The Deck explains, “even things like cleanliness, something I’m really picky about with my team, are critical to being successful. Then we want to see bar management aspects like sticking to a budget, and working to a tight timeline for the three cocktails the finalists have to make in the last round — two minutes of prep, five minutes making the drinks, and one-minute cleaning afterward. And then in the cocktails, we really want to experience a balanced taste, and see an intelligent use of glassware, garnishes, and storytelling.”

“The taste is still paramount for me,” Truong Thanh Tu adds. “It’s the critical factor in whether your drink will capture the hearts of the customer, and that requires a special sensitivity towards flavors and understanding the essence of ingredients.” 

Feeling the heat. Organizer Nguyen Thi Thuy Lan and organization leader Ngo Minh Chau taking a moment’s break.

In round 1, contestants submitted a one-minute video by “using what they have” to make a cocktail. In the weeks that followed, key sponsor Song Cai introduced contestants to their spirits, through another online sharing. Then Elixir Hungariane Mango Brandy did the same. Then, just before Christmas, entrants visited the Telephone Bar, run by another of the judges, Gin House’s Vuu Thanh Tan who is also behind the legendary Saigon speakeasy The Gin House.

This all led up to the semi-finals. Twenty contestants assembled at hip hideaway, 419 Restaurant and Bar. There the entrants were whittled down to 11 who would go to the final for the ‘Shine Your Light’ finale and the chance to win first prize. The route to the final included two more trainings, one at Monin Studio and one at The Deck.

The six finalists who showed their skills in the afternoon session contest finale by making three drinks under strict time limits that expressed their personalities.

In the morning, eleven contestants became six (although they planned to choose five originally, two received the same score), who, after the final afternoon session, became one champion and two runners-up.

Tai, the winner and bartender at The Deck, completely charmed the judging panel. In the final round, he gave the judges (and himself) chef’s hats to wear before theatrically sharpening his knife and serving three drinks based on the concept of dinner courses. Surprisingly, he says that he was a shy bartender before this competition. “The I-Bartender judging criteria and the comments of the judges throughout the competition helped me explain the ideas behind my drinks, and explain how the cocktail should be drunk with a special attention to customer service. Now I’m not shy anymore,” Tai, or ‘Gin’ as he’s also known, laughs. 

Jérémy Faucan carefully inspecting three of the finalist’s cocktails that had to be made in only five minutes.

Twenty-three-year-old Tran Khanh Duong from Hanoi House Bar has a similar experience. “I definitely didn’t use to feel as confident in the cocktails I make as I do now,” he smiles. “I focused too much on the presentation of the drinks, but during this competition, thanks to positive guest and judge feedback, I’ve really begun to express myself through my drinks. I do still shake with nerves in front of a straight-faced judging panel, but that’s something I’ll fix!”

The other runner-up, Long, nicknamed ‘Long Bar’ has had longer in the profession, starting out in the F&B industry in 2016, and becoming a bar back the following year. Because of that, Long’s view of the competition is a little different to the other two. “Actually, I was probably over-confident about my drinks,” Long shrugs. “During this contest, I got to see the state of the industry throughout the country – and I realized the high-standards bartenders now have. That woke me up. I realized I had a lot of shortcomings. And so, truly humbled, I practiced and practiced every day,” Long adds. 

The winners [from left to right]: 2nd runner-up Tran Khanh Duong, champion Tran Van Minh Tai, and 1st runner-up Nguyen Hoang Long.

“Be comfortable and be yourself, and make sure your presentation skills, including presenting in English are strong,” Tran Khanh Duong advises when we ask what he’d say to future I-Bartender contestants. “Definitely be humble too,” Tai adds, “and be creative, the only limits are your imagination, and be curious – gather knowledge from everywhere, especially chefs to see what innovations they are exploring that you can apply. Oh, and finally be confident, no matter what,” he nods. Long, who works in Bien Hoa’s fledgling bar scene, agrees. “Confidence is a big one – self-reflect, identify your weaknesses – whether it’s speaking in front of a crowd, the fear of losing or whatever, and overcome them. Listening helps, especially esteemed judges like these. And finally, I’d say think out of the box.”

Competition over. Celebration time at The Deck.

With top three places under their belts, the bartending future looks bright for Tran Van Minh Tai, Nguyen Hoang Long and Tran Khanh Duong. “This competition has reminded me of what I realized when I saw Thep Dinh win the World Class Vietnam competition a couple of years ago. Back then, I promised that as long as I have breathe in my body, I would never give up learning and working to one day achieve the same feat,” Tai says. I-Bartender helped Long realize the impact great bartenders can have. “My dreams now are not only to become a bartender, but to become a bartender who instills a story in every cocktail they make. Customers don’t love cocktails simply to get drunk. They love the stories and the emotions that come with a well-made cocktail, and the bartender is key to making that happen.”Duong has big ambitions too. “I’ll keep on working to become an experienced bartender, then it’s my turn to help the younger generation. I’d also like to take our cocktails to the world…”

Photos by Nghia Ngo.

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