Waterloo Region bartenders mix and mingle for a good cause
Some artists paint, others bend metal, others carve wood. There are also artists who raise spirits. And when they gather for a show curated by Abbey Rush, the canvases are glass and the materials are mostly fluids.
The gallery is the Proof Kitchen and Lounge in Waterloo and the exhibits are part of The Collective Cocktail Competition.
Rush, who is Proof’s beverage manager, wanted to create a showcase for the talented bartenders working in Waterloo Region’s hospitality industry, as well as raise money for charity.
“It stays very friendly,” Rush says. “Everyone is out there for a fun cause, and it’s a chance for them to showcase what they do and what they are passionate about.”
She held the first competition in the spring of 2017 and plans to host two a year. The most recent event, at the end of March, was the third. The fourth should be this summer but a date hasn’t been announced.
Judging by the crowd of mostly industry people who assembled on a Sunday night in March, Rush is on to something.
Still too cold outside to open doors and spill onto the patio, spectators were packed like sardines into Proof’s lounge area. About 100 people were on hand as the evening began at 7 and that number grew to about 150 over the first half hour.
Given the same material to use as a base for their inspiration, eight local bartenders put their talents on display, first in a Speed Round and then in a Signature Drink competition, all in an effort to earn bragging rights.
The evening is a testament to what each of them says individually. The local hospitality industry is a close, supportive community. “A collective,” Rush says with a smile.
The thought of inviting competitors into your establishment and giving them a platform to showcase their talents may seem odd in many industries, but this tight-knit group basks in the friendship so many of them seem to enjoy. Given the nomadic quality of this career choice, many of these professionals have been
co-workers in various establishments along the way, learning from each other as they hone their craft.
The opportunity to come together for friendly competition allows them to reconnect and compare creativity.
At the most recent event, the key ingredient was gin from the Willibald Farm Distillery in Ayr.
Bartenders who were asked talked about how much they liked the product. This was reflected in the effort they put into creating a Signature Drink in an attempt to win over the evening’s three judges, one of whom was Cam Formica, part owner of Willibald.
There was smoke, there was fire, and many other special touches designed to impress.
In the end, however, it was attention to detail, the story behind the drink and an elevated taste that sent Melissa Baumunk home with bragging rights and a $500 prize pack to expand her home bar.
Baumunk, representing Lokal at The Walper Hotel, earned top Signature Drink honours with a creation she called “Knock on Wood.”
During an earlier visit to the distillery, she noticed carvings of wood spirits that are said to bring good luck, prosperity and
protection. She called upon those wood spirits to guide the liquid ones as she paid tribute to the gin and Willibald’s German heritage.
“It works,” she said of the spiritual helpers. “I won.”
After witnessing the efforts of her competitors, though, she said she was surprised to hear her name announced as winner.
Baumunk was a first-time competitor while others, such as Stacey Anderson, have been involved in all three events.
Anderson, general manager at Easy Pour Wine Bar in Cambridge following a stint at Lokal, has been both a competitor and a judge. She won the Signature Drink competition at the first event, which gave her the option to be a competitor or a judge the next time around. She opted to be a judge, which she found allowed her to relax and enjoy the evening a bit more.
“I didn’t have that adrenaline of competing,” she said in an interview. “I enjoyed myself more whereas you have more anxiety competing. But then I found myself wanting to be in with that thrill of everything again.”
She was back in the mix for the third event.
The night began with a Speed Round that required the bartenders to make three assigned drinks with four minutes on the clock. First one to finish, while making the drinks correctly, was the winner. It was a tournament-style knockout competition that started with all eight bartenders in head-to-head battles. Then there were four, then there were two, then there was Dan Collins with his hands in the air signalling he was done about five seconds quicker than Anderson, the runner-up.
A bartender at Proof for two years, Collins brought glory to the home team. His prize was a Delta Hotel stay and a $150 gift card for Cocktail Emporium, a bartending supplies store in Toronto.
It was a popular win, with at least one fist raised in celebration behind the main
bar when master of ceremonies Matthew Richardson announced “It’s Dan!”
In advance of the competition Anderson had explained the Speed Round tends to favour those who work as frontline bartenders over those in management roles.
“It all depends on what you do and where your muscle memory is,” she said.
So she impressed herself making it to the final, adding she may have cost herself valuable seconds by singing along with the background music.
Richardson, who works as a server at Proof, was kept busy as MC throughout the three-hour event as were the half dozen staff behind the main bar and Rush herself. She was buzzing the whole night, making sure the competing bartenders had supplies and helping drive up the price of drinks being auctioned off for charity.
In the Signature Drink round, the bartenders made four of their drinks, one to be auctioned off to the crowd and one for each judge – Formica, PMA spirit agency brand ambassador Daniel Horgan and Grand Trunk Saloon bartender Dan Reiss, the previous event’s Signature Drink winner.
The highest bid for a single drink on this night was $165, with a Collins supporter reaching deep into his pocket near the end of the event to win a bidding war.
All in – including a single $1,000 donation – $2,580.10 was raised for Food4Kids Waterloo Wellington, an organization that provides weekend food packages for 340 children living with severe food insecurity.
So much for a quiet Sunday night. But for people who work while others play, it’s a perfect opportunity to let loose a little bit and spend time with each other, Rush says.
“It’s a very warm event,” Anderson says. “There’s a lot of love within our industry. It’s really sweet.”
Stacey Anderson of Easy Pour Wine Bar in Cambridge, the first Signature Drink competition winner last year, was back among the competitors at the end of March after acting as a judge at the previous event.
ABOVE: Michel Richer, representing Loloan Lobby Bar in Waterloo, arranges dragon fruit and sweet mango crisps while presenting his cocktail during the Signature Drink competition.
LEFT: Judges for the night were Daniel Horgan of PMA wine and spirits agency, Cam Formica, co-founder of Willibald Farm Distillery, and Dan Reiss of Grand Trunk Saloon, a previous Signature Drink winner.
Abbey Rush, beverage manager at Proof Kitchen and Lounge in Waterloo, is the driving force behind The Collective Cocktail Competition.
Ulises Sanchez of 21 Fir in Waterloo brings the heat as he puts the finishing touches on his flashy Signature Drink.